The place of Howard Hawks (1896-1977) in the pantheon of cinema auteurs is universally acknowledged. He made great films in many genres, including several great westerns (Red River, Rio Bravo). He showed he could make a great movie from a bad book (To Have and Have Not), and thereby showed that “the book was better” is not an invariable rule. Alas, the only time he took on making a film of a great novel (A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, the first of a Montana trilogy), the results are not very satisfying.
As is so often the case in adaptations of major novels, in Hawks’s 1952 film of The Big Sky there are character names, semblances of the novel’s characters, and some incidents. What is missing is the point, the perspective, and the voice (even though there are voice-overs, which are mostly redundant besides not carrying the novelist’s voice or the novel’s perspective).
The movie might be more enjoyable for someone unfamiliar with the book, though it seems a fairly routine portrait of a difficult journey with external dangers and submerged internal conflicts. Circa 1830, restless young Kentuckians Deakins (Kirk Douglas clad in blue jeans) and Boone (Dewey Martin clad in black leather pants and a fringed leather shirt prefiguring his later tv series Daniel Boone) go west in search of Boone’s uncle Zeb (Arthur Hunnicut in a grizzled beard and possessed of a voice hard to distinguish from that of Hawks regular Walter Brennan). Zeb is “somewhere west of the Mississippi” and by a miraculous coincidence they land in the same jail cell with him in St. Louis.
The very large French captain of a “keel-boat”, Jouronnais (Steven Geray) bails them out. Zeb speaks Blackfeet and is familiar with the country up the Missouri River; the youngsters seem able-bodied and willing. The boat is carrying a Blackfeet “princess”, Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt), forbidden fruit for both of the lusty young Kentuckians to fall in love with. Boone and Teal Eye nearly kill each other, so the audience, especially one used to the male-female antagonism that signals “love” in Hawks movies, know which male will win. Teal Eye and Boone nurse Deakin back to health after he is shot by the band of thugs hired by “the fur company” (that it is the Hudson Bay Company is not specified) to keep other traders away from what would become the northwestern United States.
The river (ostensibly the Missouri, but I think all of the scenes are on the Snake) provides challenges and the Crow Indians, stirred up by the fur company, and the fur company thugs provide others. The movie’s length (140 minutes) is epic, and it is all very photogenic, including the romantic leads Hawks thought he was launching to stardom (Martin and Threatt). Arthur Hunnicutt was nominated for an Oscar for the folksy Brennan-imitating Zeb and played many variants on the role (as Douglas did on his), but the careers of Threatt went nowhere, and Martin’s didn’t go far.
Russell Harlan, who photographed many Hawks movies (including Red River, Rio Bravo, and Hartari!) and some other striking images (To Kill a Mockingbird, Hawaii, Run Silent Run Deep) got an Oscar nomination for shooting the mountains, the river, the forest, and Dewey Martin’s light-reflecting and well-filled leather pants beautifully (in frequently luminous black and white).
Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical score is sometimes overwrought, but generally effective and not marred by a pop ballad like so many 1950s westerns or as bombastic or cloying as some later Tiomkin scores (The Alamo, 55 Days at Peking, A Town Without Pity).
Blame for draining away the tension between the heroes and most everything original from A. B. Guthrie’s great novel goes to Dudley Nichols (who wrote the numbing screenplays for “The Long Voyage Home”, “The Fugitive” (the John Ford film of The Power and the Glory) and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and the overrated one for “Stagecoach” and “The Informer”). The slack editing didn’t help and it is easy to see why distributors lopped off twenty minutes.
There are not many movies about such early western expeditions, but for drama I would recommend Hawks’s portrait of another thousand-mile journey, “Red River,” or Guthrie’s tragic vision in his Big Sky trilogy.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray