Westerns. I never quite got the appeal of the Western in American culture. Granted, the American west can be breathtakingly beautiful. I was actually there once. But when I watch Westerns, all I can think of is how hard life must have been on the frontier in 19th-Century America. Extremes of heat and cold. Lack of water. Rare baths. Snakes. Guns. I guess I’m and east-coaster through and through.
It’s hard to talk about a North American actor who worked in the 1950s and ’60s and not watch their career pass through a Western or two. William Shatner is no exception.
All in all, Mr. Shatner was in quite a few Westerns on the small screen, including The Outlaws (1960), The Big Valley (1966), Gunsmoke (1966), The Virginian (1966 & 1969), and Kung Fu (1974) (does that count?). On the big screen, Shatner had a dual role in White Comanche (1968), where he played twins who were half white and half Comanche.
On the surface, this movie is about two brothers divided as their blood lines. The one is Johnny Moon, who abandoned his American Indian culture and rides through the west as an honest cowboy. Notah, Johnny’s twin brother, is a mad renegade Comanche who eats peyote and claims he has visions from the gods telling him to unite all Comanches and make them strong again. He leads a band of wild Indians who like to attack stage coaches, steal their valuables, kill the men, and rape the women.
Johnny is often attacked by Notah’s victims, who don’t know there are two separate men. Johnny becomes so angry about his brother’s reputation that he decides that only one of them can live,
and he challenges Notah to a duel.
That’s on the surface. But isn’t this really about the two sides of all people’s personalities? The honest, moral, peaceful side, and the dishonest, immoral, warlike side. Don’t we all have to manage these two aspects of humanity, and don’t both parts have their place in our lives? Sure we all want to strive to be honest, peaceful people, but aren’t there times when we have to fight and protect ourselves from different threats?
Doesn’t this sound a lot like the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within”?
Yes, it’s true. Shatner has been down this road before in this 1966 episode, where, due to a transporter malfunction, Capt. James T. Kirk is divided into two selves: the peaceful, intellectual side and the emotional, wild side. They’re two sides of the same coin.
Okay, I may be stretching the analogy a bit. Johnny Moon was hardly passive as the gentle Capt. Kirk was. Johnny would fight, defend, and even kill if he had no choice. This movie is much more a struggle between good and evil than the dichotomy that plays out in “Enemy.”
But still, it was fascinating to watch Shatner, who filmed White Comanche during a Star Trek
hiatus, have to play two battling selves again. And doesn’t this play into the hammy, egotistical reputation of William Shatner to play two parts in one story and have to ultimately, and literally, fight himself for survival? No other actor can measure up and confront him in a climactic duel except, well, him.
On the other hand, for an actor, it must be an adventure to explore these two sides of human nature at once and make two different characters actually seem different–to try and make the audience forget it’s the same guy playing both roles.
Does Shatner pull this off? It’s difficult to say for a couple reasons: First, Johnny has the vast majority of screen time in this movie. It’s mostly about him. Notah’s character is established early on, and his reputation does most of the work during the second act. When the two brother finally connect again at the end for their duel, there are continuity problems with the production that interfere with the audience’s ability to keep the brothers straight (for instance, one brother has a black horse, and the other has a brown horse, but in once scene, they accidentally mixed up the horses).
This isn’t Shatner’s fault. The movie was made in Spain (a tapas Western?), so they clearly didn’t have the crack production staff of a Hollywood picture.
One way they differentiated between the characters is that Notah never wears a shirt of any kind. Apparently the White Comanche never worried about sunburn.
I also thought it was funny how Notah resembled Kirok in Star Trek‘s “The Paradise Syndrome.” This was an episode where an amnesiac Capt. Kirk finds himself on some planet with a tribe of Indian like people who think he is a god. He can’t quite remember his name, so it comes out as Kirok instead of Kirk. This episode aired just a couple months before White Comanche was released on Christmas Day 1968. The main difference between them is Kirok wears a shirt. Sorry, ladies.