Monday, July 18, 2011

MacKenna's Gold (1969): A Fool and His Money


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.

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