It’s big alright
The Big Sky was not the greatest ever Western, and it was not Howard Hawks’s best Western either (that was Red River). Its pace is deliberate, if not indeed slow, and its original release length of 140 minutes was too long – in fact it was cut soon after to a snappier length, the cuts being restored only much later, for the DVD. Having said that, it does have epic grandeur and a graphic sweep to it. It’s the story of 1830s pioneers going up the Missouri River in a keelboat for the first time to trade with the Blackfeet.
RKO wasn’t doing too well and studio boss Howard Hughes wanted a big, bankable Western historical epic, choosing commercially successful Hawks to helm it.
Photographed by Russell Harlan in Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Snake River and Jackson Hole locations, it has much visual power (Harlan was Oscar-nominated for it, though did not win) but a great deal is shot on studio sets and the black & white limits the impact, as does the muddy picture quality (at least on my DVD).
Hawks had directed part of Viva Villa! in 1934, then the semi-Western San Francisco melodrama Barbary Coast the year after, and he had started the dreadful The Outlaw, released in 1943, for Howard Hughes before being fired. Really, his Western reputation at the time rested only on Red River, with John Wayne, in 1948, Oscar-nominated for its writing, and a perfectly splendid film, one of the greats of the genre. Later he would return with Wayne to make Rio Bravo and then what could be regarded as two pale remakes of it, El Dorado and Rio Lobo. All in all, for such a great director, one of the towering figures of Hollywood, winner of an honorary Oscar in 1975 as “A master American filmmaker whose creative efforts hold a distinguished place in world cinema”, it wasn’t that spectacular a Western record, though for Red River and Rio Bravo he could be forgiven much.
French cinéaste Jacques Rivette said of The Big Sky, “The smooth orderly succession of shots has a rhythm like a pulsing body. Each shot has a functional beauty, like a neck or an ankle.” But then pretentious twaddle is par for the course for French cinéastes.
The star was Kirk Douglas. Douglas was not, in my view, one of the very greatest Western actors. Yes, he did some excellent movies in the genre, even, in the case of Lonely are the Brave, a great one. He was also very good, I think, as the lawman in Last Train from Gun Hill and as Doc Holliday in Gunfight at the OK Corral, both for John Sturges. But he also did some pretty poor Westerns, even very bad ones (I am thinking of There Was a Crooked Man and The Villain). He was prone to overacting and often had a look-at-me style. The Big Sky was his second Western, after an uncertain start for Raoul Walsh in Warners’ Along the Great Divide the year before. In The Big Sky he developed the cheery-chap persona that he would make his own.
He plays Jim Deakins, adventurer, who in 1832 meets up with a young fellow in Kentucky, Boone Caudill, and they hit it off, becoming partners. Dewey Martin was cast as Boone. Producer Hawks gave Martin a good part in The Thing from Another World in 1951 and obviously rated him highly because Martin also landed the second-best role in The Big Sky (when Montgomery Clift turned it down). Martin was rather a tough-guy and in his Elvis hair and tight leather trousers, often shirtless, he was probably something of a heart-throb for the female audiences. He’s OK as Boone, satisfactory anyway. Later, though, the parts he had got smaller and smaller, until he was pretty well confined to TV.
The most impressive actor on the set, indeed Oscar-nominated as Best Actor in a Supporting Role, was Arthur Hunnicutt as Boone’s uncle, Zeb Calloway, an old-timer of course (old-timer parts were Hunnicutt’s stock in trade, though at this time he was in fact only 42). He also acts as narrator, setting the scene and enhancing the semi-historical story aspect. It’s a great performance.
The story came, of course, from the famous 1947 novel by AB Guthrie Jr. Guthrie was known for depicting a rugged, generally unromanticized West, his works often filled with accurate historical detail. His novel The Way West (also filmed) won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and his screenplay for Shane (1953) was nominated for an Academy Award. The Big Sky was adapted for the screen by Dudley Nichols, who wrote the 1934 Frontier Marshal, wrote Stagecoach for John Ford, The Westerner for William Wyler and The Tin Star for Anthony Mann, among other Westerns, so he was up there in the pantheon. Nichols had already written two other pictures for Hawks, though no Westerns.
There are quite a few songs. Douglas and Martin do an entertaining O Whiskey, Leave Me Alone (also featured in Hawks’s Hatari with John Wayne a decade later) in a saloon early on and there are quite a few French songs (with lyrics by Gordon Clark) because the expedition up the Missouri is largely a French one, led by Frenchy Jourdonnais (Steven Geray, actually Istvan Gyergyay, born in the old Austro-Hungarian town of Ungvar, present-day Uzhgorod, but hey foreign is foreign right?), ably assisted by his huge henchman Romaine (Buddy Baer, younger brother of world heavyweight champion Max). The orchestral score was by Dimitri Tiomkn, and is low-key, even minimalist at times, but atmospheric.
Hank Worden has a part as the half-crazed Blackfoot Indian Poordevil, actually quite similar to a role he would do for André De Toth three years later in The Indian Fighter, also with Kirk Douglas. Jim Davis is the bad guy Streak, working for the fur company, only ever known as The Fur Company, which is trying to stop the heroes going upriver into ‘its’ territory and trading with the Indians up there. The boss of the fur company, McMasters (songwriter Paul Frees), is a dandy but ruthless. In the end, he and his thugs get their just deserts.
In microparts you can also spot, fleetingly, the likes of Don Beddoe, Iron Eyes Cody, Frank DeKova and Fred Graham.
The ace card that the expedition has (and the fur company doesn’t) is Teal Eye, daughter of a Blackfoot chief, who, when they return her to her dad, will stand them in good stead. Teal Eye was played by third-billed Elizabeth Threatt, daughter of an English father and a Cherokee mother, in her only film. She was a model whom Hawks spotted in a photograph. After The Big Sky she left the motion picture business and never acted again.
There are quite a few picaresque adventures and, in the latter part of the picture conflict with the Crow, whose lands they must pass through. At one point a wounded Kirk hides behind a waterfall, reminding us of Riders of the Purple Sage, Man in the Saddle, Johnny Guitar and Randy Rides Alone. Deakins and Boone are suitably heroic. At one point Deakins damages a finger and Jeb gets him drunk then cutis it off. It is said that this was a scene Hawks had wanted Wayne to do in Red River, but Duke wouldn’t. When Wayne saw it, though, he declared to Hawks, “If you tell me a funeral is funny, I’ll do a funeral.”
There’s also a romance, obviously. Both Deakins and Boone fancy Teal Eye. It turns out that she loves Deakins “as a brother” but Boone will become her husband and finally remain in the Blackfoot village when the rest of the crew depart before the oncoming winter blocks them there upriver.
The journey was key to so many Westerns, and this of course is not just a journey up the Missouri River but also a kind of coming-of-age for the young man, who starts as an Indian-hater and gradually learns wisdom.
Paul Simpson in The Rough Guide to Westerns calls the movie “homoerotic” and Hawks himself described it as “a love story between men.” Obtuse as I undoubtedly am, I didn’t see that myself at all. Deakins and Boone are just partners and friends as in countless Westerns of every era.
The film may have been designed to refill RKO’s coffers but though it started quite well, it soon became apparent that it was not going to be a commercial hit, and the picture added to the studio’s financial problems rather than alleviating them.
Not the greatest Western, and not Hawks’s greatest film either (he himself said he was disappointed with it), not even the best Western of 1952 (High Noon would have to take that crown), The Big Sky is nevertheless a key moment in the Western genre and certainly repays a watch.