"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mackenna's Gold (Columbia, 1969)

Gobble, gobble.

This picture reminds me a lot of the meleagrian How The West Was Won with its bloated budget, its length (though cut from three hours, mercifully), its cast list led by Gregory Peck and a raft running the rapids. Columbia certainly put everything into it, and perhaps they wanted to out-MGM MGM. .

They chose a successful Brit director of big ‘exciting’ pictures (The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear) to helm it, who, however, had no Western track record. They assembled a stellar cast: Peck, Omar Sharif as the Mexican bandit Colorado (well, he was foreign, wasn’t he?) to lead, and then in support Raymond Massey doing his overacting crazed preacher act, Edward G Robinson in blind man’s glasses, Eli Wallach, Burgess Meredith, Lee J Cobb (as “Samuel Fuller” - references, all these references), Anthony Quayle, all sitting round a camp fire waiting to get massacred. These famous support actors get one line bit-parts and thirty seconds’ screen time each.

The blonde love interest was provided by Swede Camilla Sparv, pretty much unknown and later to end up doing appearances in the Rockford Files, Hawaii Five-O, that kind of thing. Not exactly stellar, she, and Peck (running to flab) could have been her father, if not quite grandfather. Still, she was decorative. . .

The Arizona and Utah locations are certainly spectacular and Joseph MacDonald photographed them in Panavision, so it’s quite something on the big screen, although there are a lot of trendy odd visual tricks (helicopter shots supposed to be a buzzard’s-eye-view, or the camera on Peck’s back as he is dragged along behind a horse, for example) and for such a lavish picture there’s a surprising number of people bobbing up and down on fake horses and studio shots. There’s also too much silly speeded-up film. It's very old-fashioned in this regard.

Pretty bad

In the blessed days before special FX, the canyon was actually blown up for the earthquake scene. The pool where they dally and, of course, skinny-dip (funny how there’s always such a convenient pool in the desert in these movies) had to be man-made and the water trucked in.

In some ways it’s a Western (man against nature, stunning shots of the West, guns, bandits and Apaches) but in fact it could have been set anywhere (Africa, for example) and it’s really just an adventure story of maps leading to secret treasure in a hidden valley of gold. Still, it was written by Carl Foreman of High Noon fame. .

Brian Garfield called it “a gargantuan dud of absolutely stunning dreadfulness”. So I don’t think he liked it. The New York Times reviewer was also stunned and in fact said it was “a Western of truly stunning absurdity”. Personally, I don’t reckon it’s that bad. A Foreman script, Peck as lead, Joe MacDonald behind the lens and Quincy Jones doing the music – they couldn’t make a total turkey. Could they?

Oh, alright then, they could. And I do admit, it isn’t very good. Sharif is just hopeless. Sparv couldn’t act. Telly Savalas as a crooked cavalry sergeant plays it like some low-grade war film. It has OTT sound (Derek Frye) with mega stereophonic dubbed-on effects, probably influenced by spaghetti westerns (take earplugs if you see it in a big movie theater). In fact, it’s a clunker.

See it once (well, you gotta, it’s got Peck in it) but put that DVD back in the rack is my advice. 



  1. I am the only person I know still living who saw this...film...in its initial release on a huge curved screen in a 3,000-seat movie palace. I was with my dad. There were 2,998 empty seats. Thank goodness for union projectionists in those days or we wouldn’t have had this memorable experience to look back on. My dad and I walked out at the end, stunned absolutely speechless. We said nothing to each other on the way home. Finally, before going to bed, Dad popped his head in my bedroom door and said, “Well, at least it wasn’t as bad as ‘True Grit.’” I knew then that I would never see another movie with my dad.

    1. Yes, you must be close to unique then. Or at least no one else would actually ADMIT to having seen it. It really is amazingly dire.
      How could your dad be so wrong about True Grit though? Amazing.

  2. Again a film adapted from Henry Wilson Allen! My very first encounter with the majestic Canyon de Chelly in colors as I had seen Edward Curtis black and white icons before. Beside of the scenery, an awful gâchis. Strangeto read the film was a hit in India or behind the iron curtain ! JM

  3. I loved watching it. As a kid growing up in India and seeing monument valley on a big screen was awesome.