Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Gold Rushed: "Mackenna's Gold" (1969)

This big bold western has the best of intentions, but Carl Foreman's screenplay (based on Will Henry's novel) is more ambitious than 1969 special effects technology. This is ripe for a remake.

Victor Jory, a completely unnecessary narrator, clues us in on a hidden canyon of gold that the Apaches guard. They kill and maim anyone who discovers it, and there are plenty of gold hunters out there looking for it. One of them is not Marshal Mackenna (Gregory Peck), who is wandering around in the desert before being shot at by an old Apache chief. Mackenna fires back. Before the chief dies, Mackenna finds his map of the golden canyon, but burns it, confident it is a myth. Continuing the run of bad luck, an outlaw gang led by Colorado (Omar Sharif) come on the scene. They find the useless burned map, so they kidnap Mackenna, and will use the memorized map in his head. Also a hostage is Inga (Camilla Sparv), the daughter of the murdered judge who put a price on Colorado's head. Colorado's gang includes Hesh-Ke (Julie Newmar), an insanely jealous Apache woman who was once involved with Mackenna, and Hachita (Ted Cassidy), a strong and silent Apache warrior torn between his Native American spirituality and his outlaw behavior.

The gang is hiding out when Baker (Eli Wallach) shows up with most of the prominent citizens of a local town. They also want to come along, seeing the gold hunt as a big undangerous adventure. Big time cameos abound here: Lee J. Cobb, Raymond Massey, Burgess Meredith, Anthony Quayle, and Edward G. Robinson. The men do not heed Mackenna's warnings about Colorado, thinking Mackenna wants more gold for himself. The U.S. Cavalry and a group of Apache warriors are after this group, and the Cavalry ambush them after they escape from their canyon hideout. Most of the cameo actors die, and Colorado, Mackenna, Inga, Hachita, and Hesh-Ke survive.

Thrown into the busy plot is Sgt. Tibbs (Telly Savalas). Tibbs hears the story of the gold, pretends to rescue a released Inga, then kills his own men and joins the gang. The gang finally finds the golden canyon, enter it, and the double crosses and mind games come to a head.

The cast here is first rate. Except for the never-convincing casting decision of having white actors portray American Indians, the group is strong and professional. One sour note is Keenan Wynn, whose part seems to have been trimmed excessively, considering he is fifth billed. Thompson, who also directed Peck in the excellent "The Guns of Navarone," does a good job here. He gives us scenes we do not normally see in westerns- a point of view shot from a man dragged by a horse, and the destruction of an actual canyon. Quincy Jones throws in a cool score, although the buzzard song, warbled by Jose Feliciano, is a little silly.

The film suffers from a slow midsection. Victor Jory's narration is awful. He explains obvious plot points, and leaves nothing to the viewer's imagination. The special effects are awful. The beautiful location scenery is negated by some bad back screening shots. The ride down the canyon wall near the climax is embarrassing in its ineptitude. A crossing across a rickety footbridge between two cliffs and an escape on a river raft are both negated by obvious miniature work and stock footage, respectively. Finally, the golden canyon segment has funny animated shadows and badly done matte cliff faces. A remake with some really good effects might enliven the action set pieces, the bad effects detract.

In the buffet of big action films, "Mackenna's Gold"'s eyes are bigger than its stomach. There is a great western trying to get out, evidenced by the talent in front of and behind the camera, but technical gaffes sink it. (* * *) out of five stars.