The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Mackenna's Gold

Oh, cable, how I love you. I basically have two channels on if I'm watching TV, either MLB Network or Encore Westerns. A whole channel devoted to western TV shows and movies?!? Aaahhh my head just exploded! It gives me a chance to revisit a whole bunch of movies I haven't seen in years, like 1969's Mackenna's Gold, a big-budget, all-star extravaganza that I remember liking (I think) on my first viewing. Does it hold up?

A marshal for the western town of Hadleyburg, Mackenna (Gregory Peck) is out on the trail when he's ambushed by an old Apache man who dies after a quick shootout. Before he dies, the Apache gives Mackenna a map to a famous, supposedly lost, canyon of gold ('Canon del Oro') that treasure hunters have long sought. Mackenna throws the map in the fire but not before noticing a couple landmarks on it. He's soon cornered by a Mexican bandit, Colorado (Omar Sharif), and his gang who similarly are looking for the canyon of gold. They're not alone. The desert seems full of treasure hunters and gold-hopefuls desperately searching for the gold. Discovering that Mackenna may hold the key to finding the canyon, he's taken along as Colorado's unwilling prisoner. The supposed location is days away across the vast desert with Mackenna, Colorado and his men forced to deal with a do-good posse out of Hadleyburg, an intervening cavalry troop and an Apache war party. How far will the prospect of gold drive all these folks?

I'm a sucker for westerns -- good and bad -- but this one is bad and just not that enjoyable. Talk about a movie where the ingredients don't come together (at all), and you've got this movie. The talent on-hand is unquestionable from director J. Lee Thompson, stars Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif leading a ridiculously deep cast, a cool, potential-filled story and a drop-dead look to it should have been so much better. Or I guess I'd settle for just 'good' too. The formula seems to go after a western Guns of Navarone meets Treasure of the Sierra Madre combination, but it never jells into anything remotely coherent or especially enjoyable. That's tough to say because a cast this good should make a movie pretty decent on its own but alas, it wasn't meant to be this time! If you're looking for a Peck-Thompson-Carl Foreman pairing, stick with 'Navarone.'

Kudos to Encore Westerns. Watching the movie for the second time but first time since 2009, I watched it in widescreen, as it was meant to be. Thompson filmed in Super Panavision 70, a filming technique that fills the screen to epic proportions, almost like a panoramic picture. Shooting on-location in Monument Valley, Glen Canyon and Canyon de Chelly in Arizona adds a great visual appeal to the movie. Shots of riders galloping across these expanses are excellent to watch, a sight to behold, and unfortunately, one of the few genuine positives to take away from a western that's too long at 128 minutes. When a movie's looks are the best thing going...that's never a good thing.

Poor Gregory Peck, he looks like he's as bored as all get-out and doesn't quite know what to do. One of my all-time favorite actors, he's undone by all the shenanigans going on around him. Getting to play straight man to a murdering bandit, a gold-for-eyes posse, a bloodthirsty Apache war party, a murdering cavalry sergeant (an underused Telly Savalas), and all sorts of ancient legends coming to life is never a good thing. As reliable as anyone who's ever graced the screen, Peck is given little more to do than look out for Camilla Sparv's damsel in distress while navigating a love triangle with Julie Newmar's Apache warrior and Sparv. Yeah, you read that right. Catwoman plays an Apache warrior and looks great doing it! She even gets an odd nude swimming scene where she tries to kill both Peck and Sparv. So there's that!

So much of the rest of the cast is simply miscast. I like Sharif in just about any film he's ever done, but he's an odd choice to play our Mexican bandit, Colorado. His gang includes Keenan Wynn as a Mexican bandit named Sanchez, with Ted Cassidy (Lurch from The Addams Family), Rudy Diaz and Robert Phillips as Apache warriors. All spot-on casting! Brace for this list of appearances that amount to little more than cameos, members of a "posse" out of Hadleyburg that's looking for gold. The group includes Eli Wallach, Anthony Quayle, Lee J. Cobb, Burgess Meredith, Raymond Massey and Edward G. Robinson!!! Look at that Hollywood royalty! Unfortunately, they're introduced, given nothing to do and there basically because of their name recognition. So....yeah....there's that! Quite the cast, huh? I just wish they were given more to do. Maybe that character development was cut from the rumored 3-hour version of the film. Yeah, that's it I'm sure.
Just too many moving pieces that never get going in the same direction. There's virtually no story, just some character introductions and then they're off into the desert. The only detour are various ways to kill off characters in waves. Then, there's the beautiful location shooting, with a slight problem. Countless times, one after another, we see the location shots and then a quick cut to our actors in front of a rear projection shot. Nothing takes you out of the story's momentum like Peck, Sharif and Co. riding a "horse" as they tear across the desert. Throw in some odd, out of place narration (it's not Victor Jory's fault!), some painful theme ballads, and generally odd cutting and editing that is more and more jarring with each passing scene.

There's a meanness to the story that's hard to account for. Characters are introduced for the sake of dispatching them in unceremonious fashion, but the general tone of the movie itself isn't that dark. It feels like they're going for that "Greed will make you do horrible things" tone, but it's too light, fluffy and goofy to pull it off. There's some potential obviously with the all-star cast, some equally impressive camera angles and shots, and the location shooting, but there's just too much negative going on to ignore it. A stinker.

Mackenna's Gold (1969): **/****


  1. Almost a pity 2/4. Even in a trainwreck, it was cool to see the cast and Julie Newmar is perty so that's a star on its own!

  2. I had read somewhere that the movie was originally 3 hours (give or take some minutes) long, and the studio cut the movie down to a more "standard" running time. That's why the Hadleyburg gentlemen have so few time onscreen, and why Savallas appearance is more like an afterthought than a fully fleshed character.

    Sadly, the discarded material is also presumed lost.