Continuing our season of Dean Martin Westerns, today an early-70s picture he did which was a return for him to the sub-genre he’d started in (and largely continued in), the comedy Western.
Comedy Westerns are not easy to do: the best are superb, even sublime, but the majority of them fall flat on their face (often in a pratfall). The AV McLaglen/Jamie Lee Barrett production Something Big was, honestly, a bit of a dud.
One reason for this, though I’m sorry to say it, was its director, Andrew McLaglen. Though a John Wayne groupie and son of one of John Ford’s favorite actors (and of course the two things are not coincidental) McLaglen was basically a second-class director of feature Westerns. He did a competent enough job on TV – one thinks especially of Gunsmoke and Have Gun – Will Travel – but when you look at his record of big-screen oaters it’s undistinguished, to say the least of it. He started in 1956 with Gun the Man Down, almost a Gunsmoke spin-off, with James Arness, which looks like a TV movie; there were forgettable minor pictures like Freckles and The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come; he directed the worst Westerns of James Stewart, the soapy family saga Shenandoah and the perfectly dreadful The Rare Breed (which like Something Big co-starred Brian Keith); then the stodgy and overlong The Way West a flop; the very undistinguished Bandolero! (also with Martin and Stewart); and, of course, various Wayne Westerns, the weakest ones. No, sorry, but McLaglen feature Westerns are a big disappointment.
And producer/writer Barrett must share the blame. Best known probably for his work on In the Heat of the Night and Smokey and the Bandit, he also wrote Westerns, some rather second-rate ones, two of James Stewart’s weakest, Shenandoah, Bandolero!, then The Undefeated for Duke and Rock Hudson, and his best effort, in which Stewart was better, The Cheyenne Social Club. The script of Something Big, however, is plodding, repetitive and in the last resort just not very funny (though I do understand this last is a subjective judgment). It is said, amazingly, that Barrett wrote the part for Peter O’Toole. The mind positively boggles.
As for top-billed Dino, in Something Big I think he is supposed to do a charming-rogue bit but he just seems tired. Sometimes in Westerns, rarely it must be said, Martin sparked. As we have seen he was pretty damn good as the bad guy in Rough Night in Jericho, for example, he was powerful on that episode of Rawhide he did and of course he was memorable as the alcoholic deputy Dude in Rio Bravo, but he was also perfectly capable of sleepwalking through trash like Sergeants 3 and 4 for Texas with his slapdash buddy Sinatra, or going through the motions with other stars such as James Stewart and Robert Mitchum in the likes of Bandolero! and 5 Card Stud. When you consider what a talented actor he was, he really wasted that talent on the majority of his Westerns.
Second-billed Brian Keith was not all that dissimilar in some ways. He too would famously accept any old script that came along and he too was also capable of just going through the motions to get to the end of it. In Something Big he plays an aging Cavalry colonel on the verge of retirement, a poor man’s Nathan Brittles. He was actually only fifty but relied on make-up to age him.
But the worst thing about Something Big is that it is way too long. An action-comedy Western that becomes a bore is unforgivable. At not far off two hours it seems interminable. This was the fault of director, producers and writer.
One good thing about the movie: McLaglen got large numbers of Ford/Wayne stock company regulars in, often in little more than cameos but still entertaining. Denver Pyle is a filthy outlaw, Harry Carey Jr is a cook with a wooden leg, Paul Fix is an Indian chief, Ben Johnson is an incompetent Army scout, and Bob Steele is a teamster, among others.
The idea is that outlaw Joe Baker (Martin) is planning “something big” (a phrase repeated ad pretty well nauseam) and Colonel Morgan (Keith) wants (a) to find out what and (b) stop it. That’s the plot.
Rascally Albert Salmi and his cadaverous gunman (and knifeman) sidekick Robert Donner (another Wayne regular) are ready to give Baker a Gatling gun for his “something big” but in return, sex-starved Salmi wants a woman. There are precious few in the territory.
Now, it just so happens that the colonel’s lady is coming out West on the stage to join him, and she will do nicely. Mrs Morgan is played by Honor Blackman, Brit actress who was both John Steed’s athletic partner in The Avengers and Bond girl Pussy Galore in Goldfinger. She had done a Western before, Shalako, with then-Bond Sean Connery, a picture that is oft derided but which in fact I don’t mind. She plays the colonel’s wife as a prim but in the last resort gutsy lady.
David Huddleston has a very short part, cut off in his prime. Joyce Van Patten and Judi Meredith are two very horny women who rather unfunnily set upon any man (even Salmi) who comes near.
The real star of the show, though, is Tuffy (Scruffy), the mutt which Baker takes everywhere with him in a special saddlebag. This megastar was wasted, though, given nothing to do. He just seems to be there.
Surprisingly, the movie starts and ends with a Hal David and Burt Bacharach pop-ballad (60s and 70s Westerns felt obliged to, especially after Butch Cassidy) which is not sung by Dino. That was a disappointment.
In fact this picture seems to have been trying for the Butch Cassidy vibe, though it signally failed to find it.
It’s a big-budget affair with a large cast and shot in Technicolor down Mexico way (Durango, a favored Wayne/McLaglen locale) by Harry Stradling Jr, who did wagonloads of Westerns, from Sinatra’s The Kissing Bandit in 1948 to Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn in 1975, was McLaglen’s go-to on Gunsmoke, and whose (visually) best Western was probably Little Big Man.
As a counterpoint to Honor arriving for Brian, Martin also has a shrewish fiancée heading inexorably West to get him, in the shape of another Brit, Carol White, in her only Western. I do wish these actors wouldn’t try these “Scottish” accents though. Hers (she is a Londoner) is as fake as it is overdone. Her brother Tommy (Don Knight) is Baker’s sidekick and he plays the bagpipes. He too was only relatively Scottish: born in Manchester, England, he studied for the ministry in Montreal.
There’s a sergeant, Fitzsimmons, who is fond of a drop, Merlin Olsen, who, though, is rather uncharismatic. You would have thought that the director, whose father was famed for such parts in those John Ford cavalry Westerns, might have gone to town a bit on that part. There is the (compulsory) saloon brawl the sergeant takes part in. Only mildly funny.
There’s a rather unsavory climax as Martin Gatling-guns to death countless Mexican bandidos. We’re tired of it and it wasn’t very enjoyable even the first time. But as I said, by then you have lost the will to live and are just praying for rain.
No, I’m afraid it isn’t very good. Roger Ebert said, “It doesn’t have a single surprise in its whole two hours.”