Wednesday, March 3, 2010


By 1969, the Western had become a decadent form. It had passed through its classical era in the hands of Ford, Hawks and Walsh and even a post-classical era via Anthony Mann and Bud Boetticher. But by the 1960's, unless it had John Wayne, who was ballooning up into a landmark, like a human Monument Valley, a Western had to have Something Else. Maybe it had a new take on some aging stars, like Ride The High Country, vast scope like How The West Was Won, super violence like The Wild Bunch, or transference into an existential meta-genre, as in the Dollars movies by Sergio Leone.

McKenna's Gold (1969) is perpetrated not by experienced Western hands (other than star Gregory Peck) but by many of the people responsible for the first super-action picture, The Guns of Navarone. That film helped popularize the multi-star vehicle and introduced a certain gradiosity into what could have been a small-scale story about an expert team sent on a dangerous mission. (Picture, for instance, if the film had been made in a British studio in the 50's starring Stanley Baker.) It is not sufficient that the mission is dangerous and difficult. It must Alter The Entire Course of The War. This was, perhaps, to be expected from the writer of High Noon and Bridge On The River Kwai, Carl Foreman, who wrote and produced McKenna's, working with his Navarone director, the always-erratic J. Lee Thompson.

McKenna's is similarly overblown. Not content with their wobbly variation on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the film features such noted Mexican actors as Omar Sharif and Keenan Wynn (although Eli Wallach, strangely, plays a non-Mexican!), such famous Native Americans as Ted Cassidy (Lurch) and Julie Newmar (nee Newmeyer aka Catwoman), plus Western perennials Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar), Lee J. Cobb (Willy Loman), Burgess Meredith (The Penguin), Telly Savalas (Kojak) and Anthony Quayle (super-bland Englishman in a million pictures). Also, there's Raymond Massey, who only plays good men, as in Abraham Lincoln in Illinois, crazy men as in Arsenic and Old Lace and men who try to be good so hard it makes them crazy (as in Santa Fe Trail and East of Eden).

Oh, by the way, all those character actors (except Savalas) enter the film in one fell swoop about 30 minutes into the picture and are all dead within 30 minutes after that, having performed no apparent function in the story. One can almost imagine them all showing up in a van, on vacation, going to visit their pal Greg Peck, and getting talked into doing some wacky bits in this Western, and getting written out when it's time to go back to Palm Springs.

The film was shot in at least four different picturesque canyon locations in Utah and Arizona, and evidently there was a different script used in each location, because the whole thing feels scotch-taped together. Finally they all find the titular gold (did I mention they were looking for McKenna's gold?), but they can't take it. Whether that was because it was being protected by Apaches, it caused earthquakes, or it just gave everybody the hoodoos, I couldn't tell. Then they all rode away, including Omar Sharif, who was a real meany and should have been tossed into a canyon, only he wasn't.

What's telling about the movie is not what a mess it is, but that they believed they could get away with in 1969, since it had horses and pretty canyons.

Oh, in one scene Julie Newmar takes a swim. That scene is pretty good.

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