MacKenna's Gold (1969) is a stunning western pictorially and as a celebration of excessive waste. The film, wallowing in the new-found freedoms in film as the Production Code was finally abandoned, reflects the cynicism of the late sixties, though it is set in 1874. Released in the same year as The Wild Bunch and True Grit, the first part of the film is visually glorious, with scenes filmed in the deserts around Medford, Oregon, Kenab, Utah, Canyon de Chelly and Glen Canyon, Arizona, all spectacular settings chosen carefully by the director J. Lee Thompson and his production designer, Geoffrey Drake. If only the visual breadth of the film had been matched by a more incisive analysis of the frontier mentality and the limits of civilized behavior in the face of violence and greed.
Even on a Hi-Def television in a Wide Screen format, one can only imagine how this movie must have looked to movie-goers in a theatre in '69 during its first run. Shot in color with a 70mm lens for Cinerama by cinematographer Joseph MacDonald (Pickup on South Street, Bigger Than Life), the movie was the last film of MacDonald's career. Originally intended for reserved seat roadshow engagements, a nervous Columbia Studios cut the film down to two hours from its original three and dumped it in regular theaters after losing faith in the movie. A relatively simple story was overblown, told with a then-enormous budget of $14.5 million and lasting longer than it should have, even after drastic editing.
According to IMDb, "a handful of scenes were filmed in 35mm anamorphic and then optically blown up with disastrous results. The blown-up scenes are exceedingly grainy and have bad color." There were also several scenes with matte paintings inserted in the last third of the movie representing vast landscapes that had been photographed beautifully for the earlier scenes in the movie.
Made by the same team that produced The Guns of Navarone: Director J. Lee Thompson, (who had made far better movies, Ice Cold in Alex, Tiger Bay, I Aim at the Stars when he was working on a much smaller scale in his native Britain), Producer-Writer Carl Foreman, and star Gregory Peck, this movie was turned down by Steve McQueen. Peck initially said no to the script as well, but relented later, perhaps in gratitude to Thompson and Foreman. Peck may also have wanted the work since his career momentum was not good in that period after making the poorly received (but much better western) The Stalking Moon and just before Peck pretended to be an erudite James Bond in Red China in the listless The Chairman. Greg should have listened to his visceral instincts regarding this movie.
In MacKenna's Gold (1969), Gregory Peck played MacKenna, who is a marshal in a Southwestern town of Hadleyburg (a possible reference to Mark Twain's humorous if pointed story "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg"). While traveling through the desert MacKenna encounters an ancient Apache Indian played by Italian actor Eduardo Ciannelli, who looks like a leathery fruit roll-up left in the sun too long, Ciannelli, playing Prairie Dog, tries to kill Peck, fearing that the man is after his map to the legendary Canyon d'Oro, a hidden spot in the desert (sometimes known as The Lost Adams Diggings), where the gold can be seen in streaks up the walls of the canyon seven to ten feet wide. Traditionally guarded by the Apache, who believed that the Spirits will enable the tribe to remain strong and free as long as the gold is untouched, the present day Apaches have lost faith in that belief, and wish to use the gold to buy guns to fight the white man. The whites have been searching for this legendary spot for years, especially since one white man, Adams, is said to have visited the canyon with the Apache, and paid for the privilege with his eyes at the hands of the Apaches.
After Prairie Dog dies of the wounds sustained in a firefight with MacKenna, the marshal, who scoffs at the map that he finds in the Indian's belongings, burns the pictogram map. As he is burying the old man, a motley gang of cutthroats, led by MacKenna's slightly crazy old friend, a Mexican bandit named Colorado (Omar Sharif), jump the lawman, whose life is only saved after he agrees to lead them to the canyon, as outlined on the map, (apparently, Greg has a photographic memory). Their hegira takes the people through the desert to the gold, as they encounter people infected with gold fever, meeting and discarding them after various double crosses and ambushes.
There is also one episode in the story set in an unlikely pool with fresh water in the middle of the desert. This sequence allows the male portion of the audience to enjoy the sight of a lanky Indian maiden (Julie Newmar) swimming in the buff, augmented by one discreet glimpse of Mr. Sharif with his guard down, so to speak. Gregory Peck and Camilla Sparv take a dip with their clothes on--which seems rather odd, especially since it makes them vulnerable to attack from a brooding Hesh-Ke, who really knows how to nurse a grudge.Despite this interlude, most of the action involves fights and deals that are struck among the travelers in this often beautiful looking but ludicrous movie.
In the denouement, the filmmakers threw in some trippy special effects that defy the laws of physics when the rising sun moves across the landscape very rapidly, creating long shadows in the morning instead of the afternoon. The first glimpse of the gold by the searchers allows the boys in the photo lab to present some cheap effects seemingly inspired by Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. When the tired gold hunters finally stumble upon the riches-laden canyon with renegade Apaches and Cavalry on their tails, there is even a pseudo-mystical earthquake (apparently the gods were not pleased with this movie) which tilts the film toward Krakatoa, East of Java (1969) territory. Big effects do not a coherent story make, as you can discern from this brief clip:
The cast is remarkably good. If only they had a better story to tell:
~Gregory Peck as a town marshal with a shady past. Peck's character is slightly racy since he has been known to play poker, likes an occasional sip of whiskey, and may have dallied with an Indian maiden in the past. Peck is one of the few characters one can root for in this movie, though even he seems ambivalent. Much later, the actor looked back on this film and said, "MacKenna's Gold was a terrible Western, just wretched," though it must have been quite tempting to work with J. Lee Thompson after Peck's experiences with the action director on such memorable projects as The Guns of Navarone (1960) and Cape Fear (1962). Before calling it a day on their partnership, the twosome would go on to collaborate on one last film, The Chairman (1969), an anemic spy film set in what was then called "Red China." Surveying the big budget movies that would become the last gasp of a certain type of old Hollywood style moviemaking, Gregory Peck dismissed them, pointing out that "They aim to buy their way into public favor, overpaying stars and featuring important players in small roles."
~Omar Sharif as Juan Colorado, a Mexican bandit with some serious delusions of grandeur. I suspect that Omar--or perhaps his agent--was trying to see if his Anglo-American stardom might have legs. It didn't, though Sharif's exuberant performance and accent (which really doesn't sound Spanish) is better than his character's illogical behavior, restraining his murderous impulses at several points, only to come unhinged just as his fevered dream of gold is within reach. He also has the whitest teeth in the movie, which ought to count for something.
~Keenan Wynn as a grinning bandito with almost no lines, but who leers, mugs, swigs hooch and dances with Omar at the drop of a sombrero. Maybe Wynn has been in the sun (or the movie business) for too long?
~Telly Savalas as a renegade Cavalry sergeant who has a bad case of gold fever. Leading a squad of his men into an ambush of the Hadleyburg delegation, he betrays his oath and wipes out the great actors in one scene after they had only a few lines). The U.S. Cavalry in the American Southwest must have been particularly hard up for commanding figures to have allowed this ruthless character to slip through the screening process. Telly would soon go on to greater glory in Kojak in the next decade
~Some of the most distinguished actors of their generation appear in ridiculously miniscule parts, not worth their time, though I hope they were well-paid: Eli Wallach as a gambler who is cheerfully corrupt, Raymond Massey (channeling his loopy John Brown character) , Lee J. Cobb (looking filled with self-disgust), Anthony Quayle (once again, a blustering Englishman), Burgess Meredith (fiddling with his glasses just like in The Twilight Zone), and Edward G. Robinson as a blind man whose eyes have been burned out by the Apaches. Unfortunately, we get a lurid closeup of these eyes for a few seconds of screen time. None of these good and great actors gets more than a few lines--except for Eddie, who milks his lines for everything he can!
~Ted Cassidy (yes, it's Lurch from The Addams Family) as Hachita, the tallest Apache ever, comes along with the Mexican bandits as a killing machine. His motives seem obscure, if non-existent. Apparently, his brooding presence as a mercenary Indian is sufficient, and the screenplay does not even hint at how his life path brought him to this spot.
~Julie Newmar as Hesh-Ke, an Apache amazon who is part of Colorado's gang, has a wicked temper and a smoking bod. Hesh-Ke was apparently involved with MacKenna in his younger, wilder days and she appears to harbor a grudge and a yen for the man, depending on her mood. One person she does not care for is the hostage Inga (Camilla Sparv). A survivor, it seems that Hesh-Ke's future will not necessarily be enhanced by gold, though when she is compared to an elderly Indian woman, her flinch at the thought indicates that her still waters may run deep. Too bad she doesn't have more than a few grunts in this script.
[I have a crackpot theory that Ted Cassidy and Julie Newmar really wandered into this movie from another set where they were playing aliens from another planet, since they have an otherworldly quality that is inexplicable but palpable. ]
~Camilla Sparv as Inga, the willowy hostage whose grey eye shadow never smudges and whose glistening blonde hair never seems to need a wash. The beautiful Swedish actress could not have been more naturally elegant in her minimalist wardrobe, though her acting style was almost indiscernible as she mimicked the expressiveness of the petrified trees that dot the landscape in this film.
~David Garfield (left) credited here as John Garfield, Jr., appeared as Eddie Robinson's seeing eye boy. The poor kid (who did not look like his father in this scene) doesn't have much to do except be attentive and then play dead. Mr. Garfield appeared in a handful of movies around this time, and eventually went on to a career as a film editor until his untimely death at only 51 in 1994.
~Victor Jory narrates the sprawling story, playing up the old codger in his voice, though his speech neither enhances nor unifies the story adequately.
I haven't even mentioned the song "Old Turkey Buzzard" which is the theme sung by José Feliciano for this movie. MacKenna's Gold boasts so many talented if ill-used people. Two of them are Mr. Feliciano and the composer Quincy Jones, whose score for the film is more noisy than melodious or a complement to the action.
Below is the film's trailer, which includes a ringing verbal endorsement of this adaptation of his novel by author Heck Allen (who used the penname Will Henry for this story):
MacKenna's Gold is available on DVD, has appeared on TCM and other cable outlets in the past.
An earlier blog posting about Kings of the Sun (1963), another J. Lee Thompson film, can be seen here.
Chibnail, Steve, J. Lee Thompson, (British Film Makers Series), Manchester University Press ND, 2000
Molyneaux, Gerard, Gregory Peck: A Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995