A bit of a clunker
Charlton Heston’s fourth Western, after the slightly less than glorious The Savage (1952), then Pony Express and Arrowhead (both 1953) – click the links for our reviews – came after a pause, and was released by Paramount in May 1955. Well, I say Western. It was more of a historical drama, really. It was the story of Lewis and Clark brought to the screen and shot in VistaVision and Technicolor in handsome Wyoming locations.
It was written by Edmund North, who wrote In a Lonely Place for Bogart and would later do the screenplay of Patton, and Winston Miller. Miller, you will know, started as a child actor and was the hero as a boy in John Ford’s The Iron Horse in 1924 but later wrote Gene Autry and Roy Rogers oaters, before being taken up by his erstwhile director Ford and writing the fine My Darling Clementine in 1946. He went on to script quite a few Westerns, the best of which, perhaps, were the noirish Station West with Dick Powell and Fury at Furnace Creek with Victor Mature (both 1948). North and Miller used as their starting point the 1943 novel Sacajawea of the Shoshones by Della Gould. These writers may have first read the chief primary Lewis & Clark sources and/or biographies but if so they had no compunction about altering history significantly. The resulting screenplay was a rather typical Hollywood version of ‘history’.
It was a Pine-Thomas production. William H Pine and William C Thomas together produced 81 pictures for Paramount. They were known as the “Dollar Bills” because their economically made films rarely if ever lost money. Pine remarked once, “We don’t want to make million dollar pictures. We just want to make a million dollars.” From a Western perspective, they produced Cecil B DeMille films The Plainsman, Union Pacific and North West Mounted Police, but the rest were rather less grand, quite a few with John Payne. The Far Horizons was probably the biggest after those DeMille ones.
The director chosen was Rudolph Maté. A cinematographer, he had been an uncredited cameraman on The Westerner in 1940, presumably learning from William Wyler, and had started directing Westerns in 1950 with Branded, an Alan Ladd picture for Paramount, following that with The Mississippi Gambler with Tyrone Power in 1953 and probably his best Western (though it’s only relative), The Violent Men with Glenn Ford, Edward G Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck, the year after. The year before Far Horizons he had done the stodgy Siege at Red River with a miscast Van Johnson. It was not a very distinguished Western record, really. The following year Maté would work with Heston again on Three Violent People, also not very good. He only does a fair job on Far Horizons, trying to keep the pace going (not always succeeding) and endeavoring to make the hokum romance vaguely interesting (an effort destined to fail).
Maté used Daniel L Fapp as cinematographer. Fapp spent most of his career at Paramount though would win an Oscar for best cinematography on United Artists’ West Side Story in 1961. He also did the visually superb stark black & white noir The Big Clock in 1948. He didn’t do many Westerns (though he was apparently one of the cameramen on the 1930 version of The Spoilers, the Gary Cooper one now lost). He made the most of the Jackson Hole and Grand Teton locations on The Far Horizons, though of course a fair bit of the movie was shot on studio sound stages too.
Heston, second billed this time, played Lt William Clark, while Fred MacMurray took the lead as Captain Meriwether Lewis. Heston is a rather sour Clark. He is the friend of Lewis who unwittingly steals away Lewis’s girl (Barbara Hale) and then falls out with Lewis, partly because of this, on the expedition. MacMurray is the more optimistic and commanding Lewis (it is said that he was third choice for the role after Gary Cooper and John Wayne, who both turned it down).
I always thought Fred was good – I’d even say surprisingly good – in Westerns, even though he didn’t really like them. He made, depending on your definition of a Western, about fourteen, from The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (more of an adventure/romance really) in 1936 to The Oregon Trail (his worst Western) in 1959. He was often excellent in the genre, though. However, Despite Fred’s getting top billing and being in command of the Corps of Discovery Expedition, it’s really Heston who gets most screen time.
Fred has to appear in his first scene in rather unbecoming silk britches, like grandma’s bloomers, but he soon gets over that. He is the secretary of President Jefferson (Herbert Heyes) at a posh party at the Hancocks and he wants to propose to Julia Hancock (Hale) but Lt Bill Clark (Heston) arrives and beats him to it. Still, Fred is frightfully decent about it, the best man won and all that. Commissioned by the president to explore the new Louisiana Purchase (it’s 1803), Lewis asks for Clark to accompany him and requests equal rank and joint command of the expedition, I’m not quite sure why. A recipe for disaster, I’d say. But the prez agrees.
They have Sergeant William Demarest for a bit of color and semi comic-relief. He is a relief too, now and then, for the principals are a bit on the earnest side. The expedition sets off up the Missouri on their riverboat and they all change into buckskins. It’s getting a bit more Western now. They come upon the village of the Minnetaree Indians whose chief is Ralph Moody.
The chief is rather ambiguous about these American arrivals, fearing they are the precursors of many white-eye invaders to come (and he is not wrong). He listens to the counsel of evil, sweaty and unshaven French-Canadian Charbonneau (Alan Reed, no relation to Donna, described by one reviewer as “Fred Flintstone in buckskins”), who also fears Yankee traders and convinces the chief to attack the expedition. The chief contemptuously throws the medal Lewis had given him from the president in the dirt. He’d probably seen High Noon.
It’s at this village that they meet Sacajawea (as she is called here), blue-eyed Donna Reed in unconvincing heavy make-up. She is a Shoshone, captured and working as a slave. She offers to guide the expedition as a way to get back to her people. She falls for Lt Clark (he’s still a lieutenant, the War Department having lost his promotion) and Clark, despite the glam Julia back home who has accepted him, finds himself reciprocating. Once upon a time in Hollywood this would have been thought of as ‘miscegenation’ but James Stewart falling for Debra Paget in Broken Arrow in 1950 had helped it become permissible. Actually, Ms Reed seems to have modeled her part on Debra’s.
When he spots this fatal attraction, Lewis disapproves highly – but then he still holds a candle for the fair Julia. Hollywood taboos on interracial romances doomed the love affair at the outset; we know it will not end well. And given that the writers, producers and director decided to make this romance the very heart of the film, it rather doomed the movie too.
This is all baloney of course. Sacajawea was not a guide; in reality she was little more than an interpreter and reassuring presence. And there is no evidence whatsoever that she had an affair with Clark. Later, the movie Lewis conveniently tears the relevant five pages out of his journal to keep the affair all decently under wraps, so that’s why there’s no record of it, you see. But Hollywood had to have a bit of romance, n’est-ce pas?
Toussaint Charbonneau was in fact a member of the expedition, not its enemy, and Sacajawea was his woman. Shortly after joining Lewis and Clark she gave birth to a baby, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau. Clark referred to Charbonneau and Sacajawea in his journal dismissively as “Interpreter & Squar”.
In the movie, after the expedition Sacajawea accompanies Clark to Washington DC (which she did not), is presented there to President Jefferson in what they call “the White House” (it wasn’t known as that then) and it is the president who arranges her discreet departure back to her people, provoking much boo-hooing from (now) Captain Clark. The future of sad Julia, disillusioned by her former beau, is not mentioned (in fact Clark married her and they had five children).
In 2011, Time Magazine rated The Far Horizons as one of the top ten most historically misleading films, and they had a point. Still, we don’t watch such movies for historical accuracy. You want history? Read a history book.
There’s some movie action, with various Indians attacking, a desperate fight in canoes, natural hazards, fever and so on. Various expedition members are killed (in fact only one died, and that from a ruptured appendix three months after the departure). Lewis is especially brave and resourceful. But there are definitely tedious bits. And some pretty clunky dialogue:
“Look at all the elk!”
“Sure are a lot of ’em!”
(Shot of about five distant elk).
According to Winston Miller there was a scene where Heston comes across a body on a sand spit with “so many arrows in him he looked like a pin cushion.” When Heston uttered the line, “He’s dead,” the audience burst out laughing and the scene had to be re-edited with Heston’s line deleted.
There’s no sense of wonder or of the new. They just seem to take everything as normal. It is instead a perfunctory manifest destiny statement, with Lewis blandly assuming sovereignty for the United States of the whole continent. “This is a picture of my chief,” he says at one point to an Indian. “He’s your chief too, now.”
In no time they get to the Pacific. Peezy. Right, back to Washington, they seem to say, as if Maté can’t wait to return to drawing rooms and tailcoats. Lewis and Clark are back in DC in a trice, looking as if they have just been out for an afternoon stroll, with no signs of fatigue at all.
It is essentially not a movie about historic exploration at all but rather a tale of endless silly jealousies.
If you’re not too demanding you might enjoy it.
At least the Hans Salter score is occasionally vigorous and stirring. You sometimes think it’s only the music that is.
The New York Times was uncomplimentary: “A surprisingly dull account of the Lewis and Clark wilderness trek, Paramount’s The Far Horizons landed at the Criterion yesterday with a hollow thud.” French critic Erick Maurel said it was “un film non seulement paresseux et ennuyeux, platement filmé et mal rythmé, mais également plutôt réactionnaire” (a film that is not only lazy and boring, flat in its filming and with bad rhythm, but also rather reactionary.”)
It didn’t actually lose money. That would really have upset the Dollar Bills. But it came only 78th that year in the box-office rankings.
Given the astonishing achievement of the expedition one feels that a film of it ought to have been grandly epic. The Far Horizons is, however, all rather turgid, and in parts even silly.
All in all you might prefer Ken Burns’s 1997 documentary Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. It’s actually more dramatic. Or, if you want something more Western, try The Big Sky, which was (vaguely) inspired by the expedition, Elizabeth Threatt’s Teal Eye character being more than a little Sacajawea-ish.