Johnny Moon (William Shatner) is a loner and wanderer in the unsettled American West, on a mission to find his long-estranged twin brother Notah (also Shatner) and settle a score. Both men are of mixed race, half European white and half Native American, and while Johnny identifies as a white man, the murderous Notah has hitched his wagon to the Comanche tribe, where he leads a small but vicious group of warriors. Johnny is tired of being accused of his brother’s crimes, and tells Notah to meet him in a few days in nearby Rio Hondo, where they will duel, because the only solution to the problem is that one brother must die.
White Comanche (1968) is a Paella Western (frequently mislabeled as a Spaghetti Western, even by William Shatner himself in his autobiography Up to Now) long favored by bad cinema aficionados who appreciate the finer points of a classic Good Shatner versus Evil Shatner story. For a while, it seemed there was some irresistible gravitational pull that forced Shatner into these plots, starting with “Star Trek” episodes such as “The Enemy Within” and “Mirror, Mirror.” The nutritious goodness of two Shatners for the price of one, combined with Notah’s halting speech and Shatner’s propensity to go shirtless at every opportunity, well, it’s undeniable that White Comanche has plenty of cheese to spread around.
There’s just so much in White Comanche that doesn’t make any sense, and trying to explain it is basically pointless. Notah, for instance, has short hair cut exactly like Johnny’s — does he stop in at the local barber shop every couple of weeks? — and is the only shirtless dude in his tribe, everyone else sensibly dressed for the chilly nights. Though the film establishes early on that this is the story of two brothers, once Johnny issues his ultimatum, the film forgets Notah even exists. And after being raped by Notah, Kelly (Rosanna Yanni) understandably believes his twin Johnny is the man who attacked her, but once convinced that it’s not the same man sleeps with him, because dames are all about boffing a guy who looks just like their rapist.
In short, White Comanche is the kind of movie that is so bizarre and confusing that everything you think you know about it is probably wrong. For instance, most sources claim that Notah/Johnny had a Comanche warrior father and a white mother, but when Johnny turns into Captain Exposition and explains his Shocking And Tragic Backstory, it sure sounds like he says his mother was Comanche, and no one in the film ever mentions what his father was, other than an absent asshole dad.
There’s some fun here, too. Let’s be honest: a certain segment of the audience is watching this just to see William Shatner in tight pants, and there’s no shame in that. Shatner doesn’t really give a classic Shatnerian performance here, appearing to be not just downtrodden but downtrodden squared throughout the film, but he’s entertaining as hell. Also fun is the Rio Hondo sheriff played by an irritated Joseph Cotten, plus a goodly amount of fistfights to keep the movie movin’ right along. Tables get flipped! There’s the requisite bad dubbing, Spanish actors attempting to play American Old West archetypes and Native Americans, and the best part: the film opening with a classic and overused public domain horror movie wolf howl. In daylight. In the snow. And then a jazzy bass line kicks in! Aaaaand credits!
If you’ve seen White Comanche before, it was probably via a print that had been lovingly preserved with Brillo and Comet cleanser and transferred to VHS at the slowest speed possible, so they could cram another public domain flick on there and call it a “double feature” and charge you $5.99 for the pleasure, $5.93 of which was profit. I was lucky enough to have a pretty swank copy of White Comanche that came in a two-VHS set along with another Shatner flick, the made-for-TV Pioneer Woman. I’m not sure how exactly I came by this — James “Kibo” Parry of all people sent it to me lo these many years ago — but I do recall Pioneer Woman being the better of the two films, though this may be due to the presence of my best pretend girlfriend Joanna Pettet in the lead role.
Still, this new Warner Archive MOD DVD release of White Comanche shows that a nicer presentation makes all the difference in a movie. The proper aspect ratio alone means a lot of the funnier mid shots of Shatner sucking in his (adorable) gut now look like reasonably well-framed scenes. Seeing both action and reaction in the same shot is also a big bonus, and makes the scenes with Cotten — who lends a hell of a lot more dignity to the film than anyone could have ever expected — particularly good.
But Cotten had the advantage of not being in the film’s most troubling scenes, both in terms of White Comanche‘s racism and its somewhat incoherent narrative. Based on a script by pulp author Frank Gruber, White Comanche very literally says that the Comanche half of the Moon brothers’ ancestry is evil, the white half is good, and Johnny Moon must defeat his evil half to become whole.
It’s not just that White Comanche was racist because of the time it was made, but that it’s even more racist than Westerns made decades prior. Structurally, White Comanche resembles very early Westerns of the American silent era, and in fact, the basic plot can be traced back to the silent Tim McCoy Sioux Blood (1929) though, in print, this trope goes back even further. Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo sparked popular interest, as did the real life cases of Cynthia Ann Parker and Herman Lehmann. Many details of the Parker and Lehmann cases — that the missing white folks were initially identified by their blue eyes, that they were captured by Comanche who were considered the most fearsome of indigenous peoples — were used in Western films and books so often they became cliché.
They’re cliché in White Comanche, too, though with a more sinister edge than in most films, even during the silent era. The Comanche are evil and unreasonable and essentially insane in White Comanche. Notah and Johnny are differentiated only by their eyes, Johnny with blue eyes, of course, and Notah’s eyes so dark they’re black. You know, like his heart.
Some of this may be due to the attitudes of the filmmakers. Producer Sam White noted in David N. Bruskin’s 1990 oral history The White Brothers that there were tons of problems on the film, all somehow, according to him, the fault of unions, “women editors” and “Spaniards.” Oh, and the French, who were responsible for the strange progressive jazz score, as though the filmmakers were forced at gunpoint to use the music and not spend a few days in a stock music library.
It’s also keenly obvious that the filmmakers had very little understanding of American culture and were woefully unprepared for the realities of making a film. William Shatner in Up to Now recalls that the entire experience was a miserable one, and seems reticent to talk about White Comanche, or perhaps doesn’t remember much of the shoot; either way is completely understandable. Shot between seasons of “Star Trek,” Shatner had hoped White Comanche could be sold to NBC, but Sam White later reported that NBC turned it down, claiming it was too violent. When Bruskin asks in the oral history if NBC couldn’t have simply edited the film for television, Sam White says sure… had they been interested.
White Comanche is a mess, but for some, it’s a fun mess. Maybe even a sexy mess. White Comanche is now available from Warner Archive in a bare bones MOD DVD.