Monday, July 16, 2007
It's a Western! (sort of)
A funny thing happened on the way to bed last night. I flipped the channel to Turner Classic Movies and caught the opening strains of a Glenn Yarbrough-ish theme song and a tedious, intrusive voice-over. The opening footage was of a vast Western panorama a la John Ford in vivid Technicolor. A buzzard hovered in the air. What the hell was this? I checked the electro-guide and found out Mackenna's Gold (1969) had just started. I said to myself, "Self, give this flick 10 minutes and see what happens." Once I'd started, there was no stopping. Because the film is a perfectly conceived work of art?
No. Not even close.
Because the film was too odd and surprising to turn off?
Briefly: Mackenna's Gold is about a law man who gets a treasure map from a dead Indian. Other people find out about it, and the movie continues as a clusterfuck of various folks all wanting a share of the treasure. Imagine It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World set in the old west, but a lot more people are killed.
The film begins deceptively in what seems to be a traditional western, Gregory Peck on horseback, the landscape littered with orange buttes. The film quickly goes Coo-Coo for Cocoa Puffs. At times the film seems to want to be a traditional western, at other times a bad Sergio Leone knockoff. At one point, I would not have been surprised to see Ray Harryhausen dinosaurs rush from the canyons to gobble the characters. Near the end, we rapidly go from Indiana Jones to Irwin Allen. The style of the film seems to suffer from an identity crisis as if the movie were cobbled together from bits and pieces of other movies.
Yet there was something highly compelling about such a hodge-podge. I almost want to pick up Will Henry's novel on which the film was based. Almost.
And I must grudgingly admire director's J. Lee Thompson's seemingly drunken devil-may-care, it's my movie and I'll do whatever the hell I want attitude. Much of the film is shot against breathtaking scenery, but then other scenes are clearly set on a half-assed sound stage. I was particularly amused by the film's willingness to bring in very well-known actors, give them two or three lines, and then shoot them dead five minutes later.
"Hello, I'm Edward G, Robinson."
"I'm Anthony Quayle. I'm British."
"I'm Lee J. Cobb. You might remember me from 12 Angry Men."
"Burgess Meredith here. I just wanted to express my thanks for being included in the film and--"
There are some genuine highlights. We get several shots of Julie Newmar's butt during the underwater cat fight scene, apparently choreographed by whomever did all those Tarzan/crocodile fights. Gregory Peck turns in his usual dependable performance, and Omar Sharif's very un-David Lean-ish performance is quite good.
The special effects. Huh.
Here's how I imagine the meeting:
Director: (gulping from a bottle of rum) I want a big ghost Indian head floating over the canyon at the end of the film.
Special effects guy: Well, we'll have to cut the budget someplace else.
Director: Any suggestions?
Special effects guy: The rope bridge scene. For the long shots I'll use a plastic palomino figurine I got from my Little Farmer's Playshcool Set. The whole thing will run you about three bucks.
Director: (Gulping more rum) Super. Now lets talk about how to do a cheap earthquake.
Ultimately, this is a film with a lot of problems and many chunks and elements that fit together so strangely and awkwardly that one must simultaneously condemn it as a stinker yet admit that it's highly entertaining nonsense. I cannot bring myself to say it's a good film, but I have to admit I'm glad I saw it. It was, overall, a worthwhile and entertaining experience. Frankly, I don't want to bee too tough on the picture because part of me knows that if I had some horses and cameras and a case of whiskey, this might very well be the sort of film I'd make too. In fairness, many of the above problems might have been solved if Hollywood mofos hadn't demanded an hour be carved from the picture.
If you get a chance, see this film. No, wait. Down 4-5 beers, THEN see this film. Perfect for a Mystery Science Theater 3000 party.