Hollywood actress Raquel Welch, sex symbol of the 1960s and 70s, has died this week at the age of 82. She was born Jo-Raquel Tejada in Chicago and raised in La Jolla, California. She was married and divorced four times (Welch took her first husband’s surname after their divorce in 1964), and she is survived by her son, Damon Welch and daughter Tahnee Welch.
Welch began her acting career on television (Bewitched, McHale’s Navy and The Virginian) in the early to mid 60s and also landed small cameo roles in movies, notably Elvis Presley’s Roustabout (1964). It wasn’t long before Welch impressed Hollywood producers to earn her first leading role in the sci-fi adventure Fantastic Voyage in 1966 as Cora Peterson, a member of a medical team who are shrunk to microscope size and sent on a mission inside the body of an injured scientist to save him. While the film wasn’t entirely profitable, it would years later become a cult classic thanks to its all round production values and performances. Welch for her part would gain wider attention but it would be her iconic appearance in a two-piece deerskin bikini later that same year in the prehistoric drama One Million Years BC (1966) which transformed her into an international sex symbol. The film’s promotional still of Welch turned her into a leading pin-up. For many casual fans of Welch it’s difficult to seperate the art from the artist.
Welch’s success in Hollywood was no accident. She had talent, perseverance but most of all a figure to die for. It was her voluptuous figure which was most exploited especially in an array of late 60s and 70s film such as Bedazzled (1967), Bandoleer (1968), 100 Rifles (1969), Myra Breckinridge (1970) and Hannie Caulder (1971). Interestingly, in Welch’s 2010 autobiography, Raquel: Beyond the Cleavage, she said, “The irony of it all is that even though people thought of me as a sex symbol, in reality, I was a single mother of two small children!”
While Welch broke the mould of the traditional sex symbol she occasionally made a decent movie. For her efforts in The Three Musketeers (1973) she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a musical or comedy; and in Kansas City Bomber (1972), a roller derby sports drama, Welch’s performance (bruising physical stunts and all) was generally well received. Interestingly, MGM couldn’t help itself in exploiting Welch as its star attraction. The theatrical release poster’s tagline was “The hottest thing on wheels” with Welch in her roller derby outfit.
To Welch’s credit she never did a nude scene in her movies, even when in the 1970s it became standard to do so. (When Welch posed for Playboy, she only agreed to do it so as long as she wasn’t fully nude.) She pushed back for years ruffling the feathers of producers and directors. In the American Western film 100 Rifles (shot on location in Spain) Welch famously refused to get completely naked for the celebrated water tank shower scene ambush despite director Tom Gries demands. So why the fuss? Well supposedly Gries felt the ambush scene would work better with Welch naked because it would (1) reward a paying audience and (2) better bait or lure an unsuspecting train full of Mexican soldiers into stopping to watch her shower underneath a water tank. But as sexy as that might have been as a form of fanservice, there is something far more sensual about Welch clothed in a sexy wet shirt pretending to shower caressing her body. Even without showing any bare skin below the collar Welch was a bombshell. Her co star Burt Reynolds once said, “It was twice as sexy the way she did it!”
In the movie (set in the year 1912), the motivation for the shower ambush scene comes down to the simple fact that Welch, as the beautiful Yagui revolutionary Sarita, wants revenge against the Mexican army, particular General Verge and his men who not only hanged her father but have also inflicted intolerable suffering upon the Yaqui people. As the scene plays out we see a train full of Mexican soldiers drinking and smoking, and generally relaxing with the odd soldier keeping a lookout for any danger ahead. Just as the water tower comes into view, a seemingly merry soldier whose taken a swig of his bottle of wine, notices something beneath the water tower. We ( the audience) realise its Welch as Sarita, but to the soldier she may as well be a mythological goddess. Suddenly he begins to scream alerting his band of brothers of the beautiful unsettling view. As the train nears closer, Sarita puts on a show, laughing and bathing, arousing and encouraging them to take a closer look. When the train finally stops, dozens of Mexican soldier disembark and walk towards her. Here Sarita’s playful mood and her face suddenly changes as she realise they are getting too close to her. She opens fire with a double shotgun and the massacre begins. In the end the band of rebels gun down the entire Mexican train.
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