I found myself down with the flu this week, and as a result ended up watching a fair number of movies while incapacitated. On a completely random whim I engaged in a mini-marathon of Gregory Peck movies, which included a fair number of Westerns. I’ve always thought Peck was one of the coolest actors of his generation, with standout films like Spellbound, Twelve O’ Clock High, Moby Dick, and of course To Kill A Mockingbird to his credit. He was also was no stranger to the Western genre, and I highly recommend you check out The Bravados, Yellow Sky, and Duel in the Sun to name but a few. While those are all great, MacKenna’s Gold absolutely knocked my socks off this week. I had never even heard of it, and came across it midway through my marathon. I don’t write about Westerns on the blog much because, outside of the spaghetti variety, they don’t often enter the cult film category. Without question this one qualifies with flying colors.
The first thing that caught my eye, ultimately leading me to check the film out, was the all-star cast. The film features Eli Wallach, Edward G. Robinson, Keenan Wynn, Burgess Meredith, Julie Newmar, and Telly Savalas among others. The two leads are Peck and Omar Sharif. Back in the day studios would cram pack event movies with a list of stars like this as a means of drawing folks into the theaters and away from their televisions. You still see this sort of thing employed today (e.g. Rob Zombie), but too often it literally amounts to empty cameos. In the older films each star was given their moment to shine, justifying their presence beyond simply padding the cast list. Regardless of time period I’m a sucker for big star casts, so I immediately gravitated toward the film once I noticed the roster.
Beyond the sheer volume of star power, I found the pairing of Peck and Sharif intriguing. Both gentlemen have very distinct onscreen personas, and I was curious to see what kind of chemistry they would have with each other. I think Sharif came off as more interesting because the villain is generally more fun to watch, but it was interesting to see the two actors play off of each other. The actor that was the coolest surprise of all was none other than Ted Cassidy (Lurch of The Addams Family). He played a menacing Apache member of Sharif’s gang, and was prominently featured. Much like his signature role he maintained quite a presence, but he was allowed to stretch a little here. Too often TV stars like Cassidy, familiar for one role, never get an opportunity to venture out. When they have that moment, and they shine, it’s worth checking out (e.g. Leonard Nimoy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
So the cast drew me in, but little did I know just how unusual the film would turn out to be. The first thing that hits you is the score, which was composed by Quincy Jones. Not surprisingly it’s very catchy, and features songs performed by none other than Jose Feliciano. In a number of 60’s Westerns, there was an effort to make them more contemporary. The era of John Wayne was winding down, and folks were seeking something new. Non-traditional music was one way of accomplishing this goal, but unfortunately it trended toward the psychedelic end of the spectrum. For me this usually translates to kitschy fun at best, and an intolerable mess more often. Credit the talent of Quincy Jones, as he manages to meld the desired modernity with a rousing Western theme, resulting in a truly fun score. As for Jose Feliciano, well you’re either going to like that or not. If you let yourself get into the movie it’s probably going to work for you, I found it grew on me by the end.
Having satisfied the cool music requirement, the next point of interest is the plot. Unfortunately that isn’t anything too special. Peck plays noble Marshall MacKenna who learns the location of a valley filled with gold from a dying Apache. Unfortunately he runs across Mexican Bandit Colorado (Sharif) and his gang, who force him to lead them to the legendary treasure. Along the way the all-star cast arrives in the form of rival treasure hunters and pursuing cavalry. That’s about the size of it. Where things get interesting is the execution. The film is directed by J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, etc.), a fellow who knew how to push the envelope for better or worse. Here he is at the height of his powers and clout, and appears determined to make one of the most over-the-top Western movies ever committed to film. The setup of Peck learning about the treasure, and the introduction of Sharif’s gang moves a little slowly, but once they collide the rollercoaster never stops.
One thing is certain, this film is clearly designed for a big screen experience. Having already mentioned the all-star cast and the cool pop music, another element aimed at luring the television audience to the cinema was the enormous spectacle promised. The film was shot in 35mm with certain segments shot in Super Panavision 70. As a result specific sequences would be projected in a larger format. A modern equivalent would be The Dark Knight, for which certain sequences feature full 70mm IMAX projection. You can easily identify these while watching MacKenna’s Gold, as they have a “you are there” type of quality. For example there’s a scene where Peck is being dragged behind a horse and it puts the viewer in his place. It’s very cool and likely wowed audiences back then (and probably still would if projected correctly). The film also featured a 70mm six-track sound recording, meaning it included the capability of blowing you out of the auditorium in a DTS/THX type of fashion.
The spectacle doesn’t stop there however. MacKenna’s Gold is loaded with special effects. Every once in a while you might run across an old Western with some sort of visual processing (e.g. blue screen backgrounds), but this is on the order of an Indiana Jones film. In fact there’s a climactic chase up the side of sheer cliffs which appears to have been virtually lifted by Spielberg for Temple of Doom. Speaking of Temple of Doom, another sequence worth mentioning is when Sharif and company are crossing a dangerous rope bridge across a canyon. Not only is it one of those Super Panavision 70 sequences, but it is shot with a hyperactive quality that is unquestionably later used by Sam Raimi in his Evil Dead series. Whenever Raimi has the evil spirits launch an all-out assault on the cabin in his films, it looks very much like the style in this sequence.
The number of these sequences was perhaps the most surprising aspect of this film. It reminded me of an 80’s film for that reason, and obviously had an influence on filmmakers of that era. In the 80’s special effects were the order of the day, but they were still being refined to the level of sterile perfection they now (sadly) enjoy. Because it was an evolving process there was a wild energy and enthusiasm behind them . . . as well as a desire to throw everything possible on the screen. MacKenna’s Gold has that same unhinged glee about throwing an effects sequence in wherever possible. Oh they aren’t all successful, not by a long shot, but they’re still a wonder to behold.
One final sequence bears mentioning, that sent the whole film over the edge. Going into the film I figured it was probably one of your classic epic movies, which was geared toward a general audience (meaning appropriate for all ages more or less). Granted from what I’ve said already, the film is over-the-top in many ways. Even so these elements, while certainly wild in character, are not jaw-droppingly crazy. So about three quarters into the movie Gregory Peck has a naked underwater wrestling match with femme fatale Julie Newmar. I wasn’t sure if my flu symptoms were causing hallucinations at that point, or if it was actually happening. In looking at the poster later, it sure enough turned out that the film was rated “M” for mature audiences only. There are certain things one expects when entering a Gregory Peck film, but naked underwater wrestling is not usually one of them. Bizarre.
So there you have it, a 60’s Western that plays like an 80’s film in a lot of ways. Great music, cool cast, ridiculous special effects, and way out of left field underwater wrestling. Stagecoach this is not, but it’s still undeniably entertaining.