Duel at Diablo

Director Ralph Nelson’s Duel at Diablo (1966) is “a vicious film—grim, tough and taught,” as Robert Alden wrote in his review for The New York Times. “It is a film in which arrows pierce the flesh and a knife held against the throat draws blood.…Much of it is raw and ugly, and yet it is a film that will grip you, a film that will have a shattering effect.”

James Garner plays Jess Remsberg, an ex-Army scout who—as we eventually learn—is seeking to exact retribution upon the man who killed and scalped his wife, a Comanche Indian. He encounters Ellen Grange (Bibi Andersson) in the Utah desert, saving her (he believes) from two pursuing Indians and returning her to her husband, Willard Grange (Dennis Weaver), a merchant at Fort Creel. Jess is surprised when Willard shows little emotion upon her return—Ellen had once been kidnapped by Apaches and rescued but then chose to return to the Indians of her own accord. Once again Ellen flees her husband, but this time she is sentenced to death by the Apache leader, Chata (John Hoyt), who blames her for the death of his son—with whom Ellen had a child. Meanwhile, Jess has signed on to assist Lt. Scotty McAllister (Bill Travers), who is ordered to move a shipment of horses and ammunition from Fort Creel to Fort Concho with only a troop of green recruits at his disposal. Also along for the journey is Toller (Sidney Poitier), a horse trader and ex-cavalryman extorted into accompanying McAllister in order to receive payment for horses he has supplied to the Army. Jess once again manages to rescue Ellen—but Chata ambushes the supply convoy and in the resulting standoff most of the Army soldiers and Apache warriors are killed.

Writer Marvin H. Albert had penned no fewer than 14 novelizations of Hollywood films when an original novel of his, Apache Rising, was optioned as the basis for Duel at Diablo. Albert teamed with Michael M. Grilikhes to adapt the screenplay and shooting commenced in September 1965 near Kanab, Utah, where cinematographer Charles Wheeler lensed the film against a stunning natural backdrop.

Racial hatred is at the forefront of Duel at Diablo, as evidenced by the inhumane treatment of the Apaches by the white settlers—and the brutal torture employed by the Apaches against their enemies. Jess and Ellen are also the targets of bigotry from the settlers—even though both are white—because of their willing association with Native Americans. At the same time, Toller (the only African-American character in the film) is treated as an equal—and sometimes a superior—by the settlers and soldiers: his race is never mentioned in the film. In Albert’s novel, the Toller character was white; the colorblind casting of Poitier is perhaps more effective at making a statement than a more heavy-handed treatment of the character’s race would have been.

In 1966 Neal Hefti may have seemed an unusual choice to score a western, as his previous Hollywood work had been for a handful of contemporary comedies and a pair of dramas. “Duel at Diablo was the first and only western that I wrote the music for,” Hefti told Paul M. Riordan for an interview that ran in the November/December 1997 issue of Film Score Monthly. “I did go to Kenab, Utah, to watch them film on location, and so I got an idea of what the film was like before I started writing the music. That was a very fun trip.”

Among the many positive reviews for Duel at Diablo, James Powers of The Hollywood Reporter singled out Hefti’s work, noting: “The music avoids the customary thunder of the ‘big’ western and employs instead a wistful little theme, orchestrated with a peculiar kind of syncopation. It sounds half western and half Mexican. Whatever it is it works beautifully.” And Robert Alden remarked in his New York Times review, “[M]ore than any other single factor [it] etches the drama, builds the suspense, underlines the tensions of this film. (Listen to the drums, the drums, the drums.)”

Hefti seems to have approached Duel at Diablo in much the same way as How to Murder Your Wife, composing a body of musical material that makes for a knockout soundtrack album, then adapting that material to fit individual scenes in the film. His score eschews the traditional Coplandesque vocabulary, providing a contemporary musical language to match the film’s revisionist sensibilities. While Hefti’s main theme often serves to propel the story as a whole, it is most closely associated with Jess Remsberg; fittingly, the melody for Ellen Grange is used as an accompanimental figure for the main theme, hinting that the two characters share a common destiny. There is also exciting action music for the battle sequences, a tune for the U.S. Cavalry, and a decidedly anachronistic jazz-rock vamp associated with Chata and the Apaches.

The soundtrack LP for Duel at Diablo (UAS 5139) was a re-recording but includes all of the major musical material heard in the film. For clarity, the album tracks are treated below in the order they appear in the picture, with Ernie Sheldon’s vocal version of the main theme (which is not heard in the film) discussed last.

15. Prologue
The film opens with a United Artists title card and a brief 0:11 cue (“Knife Slash,” not on the album) as a bloody knife appears to cut through the movie screen, revealing the barren Utah desert. Hesitant percussion opens the “Prologue” as a Jess Remsberg, hidden behind some rocks, observes the body of a man who has been tortured to death by Apaches. Suggestions of the main theme (and action material that will feature later in the score) are heard against quickening percussion as Jess spies Ellen Grange being pursued by two Apache warriors. He sets out to rescue her, killing one of the Apaches. Hefti introduces Ellen’s theme as the woman, delirious due to the heat, tries to convince Jess to let her return to the Apaches. The pace quickens again as Jess and Ellen mount horses, racing across the desert to avoid being shot by the surviving Indian. In the film this cue segues to the “Main Title” but on the album simply fades away.
11. Main Title
Hefti’s main theme plays out in full over the opening credits as a stunning aerial shot pulls back from Remsberg and Ellen on horseback to reveal the grand expanse of the Utah scenery.
18. Ellen’s Theme
The theme for Ellen Grange makes its first appearance in the film after Jess returns her to her husband, Willard; Ellen’s melody is revealed to be a slowed-down triple-meter variant of the main theme’s accompanimental figure (or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the main theme’s accompaniment is a speeded-up version of Ellen’s theme).
This album track comes from a cue heard a short time later in the film: When Ellen attempts to steal a horse from the town stable in order to return to the Apaches, a trio of local men catch her in the act and plan to rape her as retribution. Jess intercedes and bests them in a brutal (unscored) fistfight, with an assist from Toller. Ellen’s theme plays in its most extended form as Jess walks Ellen home and they come to understand each other.
12. Bullets and Beans
Associated with the cavalry soldiers, “Bullets and Beans” is first heard in the film as piano source music at a Fort Creel saloon. While the tune itself suggests the words “bullets and beans,” studio paperwork and ASCAP records do not indicate that lyrics for the song were recorded or published. This instrumental version is first heard as Lieutenant McAllister and his raw recruits leave Fort Creel with Grange and Toller in tow; Remsberg has already moved out in advance as a scout. For the album, the cue is extended via a percussion bridge and a repeat of theme.
17. Rescue From Ritual
While scouting the terrain ahead of the army convoy, Remsberg once again encounters Mrs. Grange in the company of the Apaches. This cue begins with a jazz-rock vamp (associated throughout the film with Chata and the Apaches) as Remsberg watches the Indians’ camp from atop a nearby cliff. Ascertaining that Chata and his warriors have departed, leaving behind the women and children, Jess calls out Ellen’s name and Hefti launches into trumpet-driven action theme as Remsberg charges downhill on horseback to rescue Ellen and her baby.
19. Fight at Diablo Pass
In the film’s brilliant action set piece, Chata ambushes McAllister’s convoy—many cavalry troopers are slaughtered and a few Apaches are lost in a relentless and superbly staged fight. Hefti’s aggressive trumpets offer a recurring motive of violence and danger, mixed with heroic turns of his main theme; in the film, the cue is lengthened by repeating various sections.
13. Keep in the Shadows
Having lost most of their water supply in the ambush, McAllister initiates a risky maneuver to lead Chata’s men away from Diablo Canyon (a box canyon containing the only available watering hole). Under the cover of darkness, Remsberg, Toller and two troopers rappel down a cliff into the canyon, taking the remaining Apaches by surprise. This cue, truncated in the film, features a descending motive that accompanies Remsberg and Toller on their stealthy descent down the face of a cliff; the album version concludes with a reprise of the Apache motive heard at the beginning of “Rescue From Ritual.”
14. The Earth Runs Red
The surviving members of the Army convoy—including Toller, McAllister and the Granges—stay holed up in Diablo Canyon while Remsberg travels to Fort Concho to summon reinforcements. The remaining Apaches approach the mouth of the canyon using Grange’s wagon as cover; meanwhile Chata and the rest of his men fire arrows down into the canyon from their positions high above. Hefti maintains suspense with suggestions of the descending motive from “Keep in the Shadows” and urgent percussion under the long-lined main theme. Material from “Fight at Diablo Pass” is reprised, culminating as the troopers use gunpowder to blow up their ammunition wagon in an attempt to keep the Apaches at bay.
20. Dust to Dust (End Title)
Remsberg returns from Fort Concho with the knowledge that Willard Grange was the man who murdered and scalped his wife, only to find Grange’s flesh literally hanging from his bones after being tortured by the Apaches. Instead of killing Grange in revenge, Remsberg instead hands the merchant a gun and Grange commits suicide. Chata is arrested by the newly arrived Col. Foster (director Ralph Nelson, billed in the credits as Alf Elson). Hefti scores the sequence carefully and with a deep respect for everything the characters have endured, bringing his score to a close with a reprise of the main theme.
16. Duel at Diablo
This song version of the main theme is not heard in the film, but was recorded for the soundtrack LP by vocalist Ernie Sheldon, who also penned the poignant lyrics. Sheldon and Hefti had first worked together on the title song for Lord Love a Duck—composer Elmer Bernstein suggested the lyricist to Hefti when he found himself stymied at the prospect of working that film’s title into a lyric. —