“They come from beyond maps”
You’d think that MGM’s biggest star, the King of Hollywood, would have climbed into the saddle a lot. He liked Westerns, apparently, his period of fame coincided with the high point of the Western movie, and all the other big names were donning Stetsons – Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, and so on. But Gable’s flicks The Call of the Wild in 1935, Gone With the Wind in ’39, Boom Town (1940), Honky Tonk (1941) and Callaway Went Thataway (1951) were not Westerns at all, not by any proper definition, while The Misfits, Lone Star and Across the Wide Missouri would be disqualified by some as Westerns because of their period setting. You could argue that he only did two, The Tall Men in 1955 and The King and Four Queens (1956), and they were both less than brilliant, and both when he was past his prime. I might do a Clarkorama at some point, a retrospective of Gable’s Westerns. But it won’t take long.
Across the Wide Missouri, set in 1829, is an example of that sub-genre of Western, or protowestern, the mountain man/explorer/fur trapper picture, on a par with the likes of The Big Sky and Jeremiah Johnson. We expect (and aren’t disappointed) handsome scenery, single-shot firearms, buckskins, conflict with Indians and, of course, a romance between the hero and a fair Indian ‘princess’, though she must die near the end of the picture, obviously, because well, you couldn’t have a white hero finding happiness with an Indian, could you? Miscegenation, my dears, and that would never do. Though it was OK, just, for a white man to wed a fair Indian (especially if she was a chief’s daughter because then she could be almost worthy of him) but not at all OK for an Indian man to ‘take’ a white woman. Shock, horror. Well, it was the 1950s.
And of course the Indians would be played not by Native Americans but by Hollywood hacks and Hispanics, as usual. J Carrol Naish, Ricardo Montalban, people like that. To be fair to the studio system, there was no tradition of Native American plays and theater, so there weren’t exactly hordes of actors waiting in the wings, though you do get the impression that even if there had been, the bosses would have preferred well-known and more bankable ‘white’ names in the cast list.
The story was ‘based on’ (i.e. much altered from) the 1947 Pulitzer-winning book by Bernard DeVoto, and turned into a screenplay by Talbot Jennings (Gunsight Ridge) and Frank Cavett (his only Western). It tells of pioneer Flint Mitchell (Gable) a Jim Bridgerish figure who built a fort and dominated trade with the Blackfoot people in modern-day Montana and Idaho. Gable was happy to do it (Spencer Tracy was talked of but in the end it went to Gable) and was powerful enough at Metro to get the director of his choice – and he chose William A Wellman, who had helmed Call of the Wild. Neither director nor star, however, was pleased with the end result.
Wellman was one of the greats, as we know, and from a Western, or semi-Western perspective, he directed pictures of the quality of The Ox-Bow Incident, Yellow Sky, Track of the Cat and Westward the Women, superb pictures in anyone’s book. But when he turned in the finished picture the MGM execs weren’t happy at all. Dore Schary and Sam Zimbalist savagely cut it, added a narrative voiceover (Howard Keel) and so mutilated the film, according to Wellman, that the director disowned it, saying, “I’ve never seen it and I never will.” The footage that fell to the cutting-room floor was destroyed, so we shall never see a ‘director’s cut’ of this one.
Gable was unwell during the shooting and was unhappy with the way he looked, red-faced and rather bloated. He had been famous for doing a lot of his own stunts but is rather obviously doubled here, by Jack N Young, even for such basic shots as mounting up.
The picture, which would be ignored by the Oscars, opened to rather modest reviews. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times called it “a disappointment” and said that it was “merely a halting, sometimes verbose Western, which only rarely captures the imagination”, while Variety called it “choppy and episodic”, and added that “the device of having the Indian dialog lengthily translated is dull and boring”.
The reviews did, however, praise the look of it, and indeed it is pretty damn good. Shot by talented William Mellor (Bad Day at Black Rock, Westward the Women, The Naked Spur, etc) in stunning Colorado locations (in fact the picture was named Colorado in some countries), in a glowing Technicolor, it is very beautiful, and the modern print on my DVD, seen on a widescreen smart TV, is impressive. It’s probably worth watching for that alone, if truth be told. If ever landscape was integral to the Western – and it is – it was here.
The picture did, however, reasonably well at the box-office, grossing $5.5m (on a $5m budget, one of the biggest of the year) and ranking eighth that year in ticket sales.
There is in fact enough quality left in the 78 minutes that remained after the cuts (a short runtime for such a big picture, really) to be reminded of Wellman’s skills. The periodic action is well done (especially the Drums Along the Mohawk-ish Indians chasing the hero on foot and the death of Ironshirt) and the growing love between Flint and Kamiah rather sensitively handled. Kamiah was played by Mexican actress Maria Elena Marqués, billed only tenth, whom you may recall from Ambush at Tomahawk Gap, in her costume looking very Debra Paget-ish.
The cast was strong. Among the boisterous mountain men are James Whitmore, Russell Simpson, and, especially entertaining, Adolphe Menjou, also enjoyable in Timberjack, here the company’s linguist Pierre Alphonse Marie Joseph Victor de Promusenne la Framboise, who, mercifully, is universally known as Pierre. Gable’s Flint is distinctly monoglot, in that American way, although most of the mountain men of the time spoke several different Indian languages as well as French. The decision was taken to keep the Indians talking their own tongue (I don’t know how genuine that language is) and have Pierre translate all the time. Maybe that upped the authenticity quota but it definitely slowed the action down, and rendered the film more talky.
The Indians are led by Ricardo Montalban as the warlike Ironshirt, whose mission is to
drive the palefaces from his lands, and old silent Western star Jack Holt, in his last film (he died soon after the wrap), as the sager old chief Bear Ghost, who is readier to make peace. J Carrol Naish also has a part as Nez Percé chief Looking Glass, the more comic-relief Indian. Montalban, who would later be Little Wolf in Cheyenne Autumn and the Pinkerton man in The Train Robbers, is rather good in Across the Wide Missouri, ferociously uncompromising and bellicose. Naish was Sitting Bull, twice, so kinda known as an Indian. The Indians aren’t bad guys, even Ironshirt.
They are true to their people.
In fact, rare for a Western, there aren’t really bad guys in the story at all – except maybe trapper Roy DuNord (Louis Nicoletti, uncredited) who shoots the peaceable Chief Ghost Bear, but even he is basically crazy, his brother (Timothy Carey, in his first film) having been killed, and so semi-excused.
For the time the movie was in fact quite pro-Indian. The narrator, who is Flint’s son now grown, says, “My father told me that for the first time, he saw these Indians as he had never seen them before – as people with homes and traditions and ways of their own. Suddenly they were no longer savages. They were people who laughed and loved and dreamed.” That was certainly a welcome change from many Westerns of preceding decades.
Third billed was John Hodiak as Brecan, a mountain man who has ‘gone native’ and is now more at home in the Blackfoot village than among his fellow whites. It’s quite well done. Hodiak’s early death aged 41 in 1955 prevented his becoming a top star but you may remember him from Ambush or Conquest of Cochise.
Alan Napier, butler Alfred in the 1966 Batman but this and Unconquered were his only Westerns, made the most of his juicy part as a kilt-wearing and bagpipe-playing Scot who had fought at Waterloo, now seeking another kind of glory and casting lascivious eyes at the Indian girls.
The music, by David Raksin, is largely, as you would imagine, variations on the theme of Oh, Shenandoah, a song which appears to have originated with fur traders traveling down the Missouri River. It’s actually rather pleasant. Skip to my Lou and Alouette, gentille alouette also figure. We can’t really call the bagpipe ‘tunes’ music, though.
Across the Wide Missouri is not one of the great Westerns – far from it – but it’s quite an enjoyable watch.