Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Seven Cities of Gold (Fox, 1955)

 

Routine costume drama

 

There have been many Westerns, or pre-Westerns perhaps we should call them, frontier stories anyway, set in eighteenth-century colonial and revolutionary times. Many featured Hawkeye, in different incarnations, or Daniel Boone or other intrepid and usually buckskin-clad pioneers with long muskets.

 

But there are far fewer pre-nineteenth century tales of frontier fighting set on the other side of the continent, in the actual West.

 

Of course there were plenty of Zorro movies, and also Westerns set around the Mexican War and the US acquisition of California, but they were early- and mid-nineteenth century yarns, not eighteenth-century ones.

 

Based on the 1951 novel The Nine Days of Father Serra by Isabelle Gibson Ziegler, Seven Cities of Gold is a 1769 tale of the Spanish attempt to conquer California by sending expeditions up from the New Spain capital of Mexico City.

 

 

The picture was quite a big-budget affair. It was filmed in Mexico, in and around the west coast town of Manzanillo and the deserts of Guadalajara. An Indian village was built as a set in the hills near Manzanillo, and a reproduction of the original San Diego mission was constructed on the beach. The movie was shot by the great Lucien Ballard in CinemaScope and Color De Luxe. It’s a pretty picture. The cast included Anthony Quinn, Richard Egan, Michael Rennie and Jeffrey Hunter.

 

The picture was originally slated for Edward Dmytryk but he was busy with another religious pot-boiler, The Left Hand of God with Bogie as a tough priest in China, and instead Seven Cities was helmed by Robert D Webb, who also produced it with his wife, Barbara McLean – it was longtime Fox editor McLean’s first production. I don’t know if the Webbs were devout Catholics but the picture comes across as pretty hagiographical, and indeed it may even have contributed to the hero’s beatification in 1988 and canonization in 2015.

 

The Webbs produced and Robert directed

 

Editor Barbara’s first shot at producing

 

Father Junipero Serra (1713 – 1784) was played by British actor Michael Rennie, who was brought to Hollywood in 1950 and signed by Darryl F Zanuck. Rennie was cast the following year in arguably his most popular role, as Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, when director Robert Wise’s first choice, Claude Rains, was unavailable. Later he’d be Harry Lime on TV. Unfortunately, because of the rather clunky writing on Seven Cities, his portrayal of the Franciscan founder of missions is cloying and sentimental, with a fair bit of mystic mumbo-jumbo thrown in.

 

 

And his saintly alter ego

 

The screenplay was by Richard L Breen (the 1953 Titanic) and John C Higgins (the 1948 Anthony Mann noir Raw Deal) with additional dialogue by Joseph Petracca (the 1960 Alan Ladd Western Guns of the Timberland, also directed by Webb) and Frank Fenton (River of No Return in ’54), so a lot of typewriters were clacking away.  Maybe it was a case of too many cooks.

 

The expedition is led by Capt Anthony Quinn and Lt Richard Egan (the latter replacing the first-announced Cameron Mitchell). Quinn was of course a proper Mexican and he does look excellently Spanish in his pointy beard. Egan looks and sounds somewhat less Mexican, it must be said, clearly a brawny (American) Californian, of the Hollywood hunky kind.

 

Somewhere between Zorba and Zorro

 

Egan not so Spanish

 

The film makers took the decision to render all the dialogue, by Spanish-speaking characters and Indians, in American English, which was perhaps lucky for Egan and for the actor playing the Indian chief Matuwir, Jeffrey Hunter, frankly extremely unconvincing in the role – as indeed is his sis, Ula, played by Rita Moreno, the Puerto Rican New Yorker who was soon to be Anita in West Side Story.

 

Jeffrey is the Indian chief

 

A voiceover in the film’s opening scene tells us that this language business was the only change they made to the historical record. Believe that if you will. Oh look, there goes a flying pig.

 

The movie is long, too long actually, because it’s slow-paced, at 1 hour 43 minutes, and the direction was less than dynamic. Webb helmed his first Western, the equally stately and CinemaScope White Feather, in 1955 and the following year did his best work, the really quite good picture The Proud Ones, with Robert Ryan, but you wouldn’t put him in the higher echelons of directors, honestly.

 

Seven Cities was a bit more Western than many of these costume dramas, mainly because the soldiers are on horseback and use guns always, not swords, against the Indians (of unspecified tribe). The guns are those muskets that you never see anyone reload, as usual in these films, yet seem to have an extraordinary rate of fire. The Indians (though unconvincing, as I said, in the case of Hunter and Moreno), do look rather snazzy, in their body paint and colorful garb. Fr Serra is always dissuading Capt Quinn from shooting at them, preferring to offer them religious trinkets and gewgaws, an enormous quantity of which he has brought with him on the trip.

 

You kinda dig the Indians though

 

The father is a bit of a pain, to be frank, holding the party up, getting lost and needing to be rescued, and such. At one point, lost in the desert during a sandstorm, he finds a cottage with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus inside, and they feed him and give him shelter. Then he wakes up. But Jose (Egan) who has come to find him had exactly the same dream. It wasn’t a dream, you see, it was a vision. Or something. I’m afraid I rather lost patience with it at this point.

 

Fr Serra gets on our nerves a bit

 

By the way, the title is a bit of a con because no cities whatever appear in the movie and certainly no gold. But I suppose it was also a con in 1769, when those Spaniards believed they were going to find untold wealth, as their conquistador forebears had done. Actually, the soldiers wear Hernán Cortés-style helmets, which look a bit incongruous in the 1700s.

 

Jose falls for Ula, and indeed vice versa, and that causes problems when the Spaniards have to go back and Ula commits suicide by jumping off a cliff when she’s not allowed to go with them. That sets her bro on the warpath. They blame Jose and want him dead.

 

The obligatory (if unhistorical) romance

 

The critics of the day weren’t greatly impressed. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times wrote, “Michael Rennie, while a bit sanctimonious in the role of the man of God, gives a generally convincing representation of goodness and sincerity. However, the plot is lurid in some of its major details, especially in the episodes of contact between the Spaniards and the aborigines. We have seldom seen such acrobatic Indians as the painted and feathered demons who pop up here to harass and battle the Spaniards, until Father Serra passes a few small “miracles.” Fortunately, they speak English almost as well as the Spaniards, so he is able to communicate.” Crowther said that the ending was “a display of theatrical heroics that takes this week’s cornmeal cake.”  He added, “Jeffrey Hunter as the young Indian chieftain and Rita Moreno as the maiden are quite absurd. The scenery is occasionally handsome, but more often it is obviously fake. This does not help the illusion of this pious and slowly-moving film. Robert D. Webb’s direction is wholly pedestrian.”

 

Another critic called it a “handsome but rather weak and routine costume adventure”.

 

I tend to agree with that, I fear.

 

 

2 Responses

  1. Probably not as hilarious as Monty Python’s Life of Brian but nevertheless close at least when reading you. I remember Michael Rennie (with his marmoreal face and charltonhestonhesque look) in a few
    Zane Grey Theater episodes. He was also a banker of the worst kind (sorry for the pleonasm) in Ride Beyond Vengeance, subject of an in-depth study somewhere in this blog. He could have been much more cast in westerns as martinet officer, politician, gambler, any classy villain.
    Anthony Quinn will be back in the 1750s in his turn (disguised) as a priest in The Guns for San Sebastian shot in Mexico by french director Henri Verneuil released in 1968 where he was a kind of Magnigicent one and only (the film being highly reminiscent of The Magnificent Seven and shot at the same locations).

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