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?

That's closer.

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.


Unknown said...

Did You Know:

That "Heck Allen," who wrote the screenplay is also "Will Henry"?

And that Heck Allen/Will Henry wrote all (or nearly all) of Tex Avery's cartoons starring Droopy Dog?

Maybe that explains things.

Jim Winter said...

Actually, you might be able to convince Mike Nelson's company to do a voiceover for this movie. He and two of the other guys (and occasionally Mary Jo "Mrs. Forrester" Piehl) do MSTie type commentaries you can buy on-line and play over your favorite DVD.

They've done at least two Star Wars films already.

I think they should do Gone With the Wind.

Anonymous said...

I caught a few minutes of this as I was channel surfing last night and passed on it. I tuned it in just as they were showing the extended vulture's-eye closeup. Freaky. Don't watch this if you're on shrooms or LSD. Since I spent the night sober, it sounds like I made the right call in not watching--Julie Newmar's butt notwithstanding.

Mike Nelson's company is called Rifftrax. The website is here. Looks like some cool stuff there.

Victor Gischler said...

I had a feeling Bill Crider would be one of the first to chime in. I also suspected he'd have an interesting factoid to share. Well done.

Jim, John,

Glad to hear Mike Nelson is still in business. Rifftrax, eh? I'll need to check it out.


Neil said...

And you still didn't like DEVIL'S REJECTS? Fine...

Randy Johnson said...

I saw the film many years ago and thought then that Julie Newmar's butt was the best thing about it.

Anonymous said...

I'll add it to my list. Or look for the next airing on TCM. I love a good clusterfuck--can't wait.

Anonymous said...

I'm waiting for the film school geeks to "discover" J. Lee Thompson, who directed everything from THE GUNS OF NAVARONE to those sleazy Charles Bronson shoot 'em ups in the '80s. He was also behind THE KINGS OF THE SUN, sort of a Yul Brynner '60s version of APOCALYPTO; KINGS was high on the goofy scale too, as I remember. I always like movies where somebody throws a tomahawk and sinks it into somebody else's chest, and give Thompson credit, he gets not just one, but two of those scenes into MACKENNA'S GOLD.

Greg Bardsley said...

I had a similar late-night experience with the new "APOCALYPTO." Couldn't stop watching, even though it was way past beddie-bye time for Daddy. ... Yeah, I know Gibson's a fucking anti-semitic a-hole of the first oder (among other things), but the film was stunning, rellentless and compelling. And as a guy of Latino descent, I don't see a whole lot of films of this magnitude about ancient Mayan society.

David Terrenoire said...

I saw this in a post theater when I was in the Army. I mention this only because life in the Army is so boring that GIs will watch anything. Anything.

I walked out of this film and I never walk out of films.