Well, time to roll out one of my guilty pleasures. Mackenna’s Gold (1969) is one of those movies I saw as a youngster and which has entertained me ever since. Everyone knows that the age at which you first see a film is a major factor influencing how much you appreciate it. When I was a little boy this film seemed like the best western I’d ever seen. It had everything you could ask for: a strong hero, a roguish villain, cavalry, Mexican bandits, menacing Apaches, and lots of action. I’m a good deal older and more jaded now and I no longer think it’s a great western, but it is a great fun western. Sure, I can see all it’s shortcomings now and, if I wanted to be coldly objective, I could probably savage it. But I don’t feel like being objective; this movie was a genuine childhood pleasure and I intend to hang on to the memory.
There’s a great opening sequence with Joe MacDonald’s camera swooping and soaring over a primal western landscape to the accompaniment of Victor Jory’s narration and Jose Feliciano’s theme song. Ancient buttes and mesas rise up from the parched desert floor before the circling camera locks onto a lone figure and zooms in on an equally ancient Indian on horseback. This old man, Prairie Dog (Eduardo Ciannelli), is carrying a map that reveals the location of a mythical canyon of gold. Before dying he passes on the map to Marshal MacKenna (Gregory Peck), but the marshal has little faith in such tall tales and promptly burns the document. When he is subsequently captured by an outlaw band led by Omar Sharif, he is forced to lead them to the canyon whose whereabouts he has memorized. As the treasure hunt progresses more people are drawn in, notably a number of the leading citizens of the nearest town. There are ambushes, Indian attacks, betrayals and more before the whole thing wraps up with a psychedelic sunrise and a massive earthquake. And let’s not forget there’s the very welcome sight of Julie (Catwoman) Newmar stripping off for a swim in among all that.
The acting tends to come second in a piece of fluff like this, and that’s pretty much the case here. Gregory Peck is as stoic (those who wish to be unkind might say wooden) as usual in a part that doesn’t call for much more than that. Leaving aside the Egyptian cowboy and the Italian Indian, the best bits come from the starry citizenry of the town (Lee J. Cobb, Edward G. Robinson, Anthony Quayle, Burgess Meredith, Raymond Massey and Eli Wallach) although they have little more than cameo roles and don’t last too long before being massacred. Telly Savalas was generally worth watching when he got to play a villainous part and he’s not bad as a greed fuelled cavalry sergeant.
The direction of J. Lee Thompson, and Carl Foreman’s script keep things moving along fast enough to paper over many of the plot holes and gaps in logic. The action scenes are well filmed, but then you would expect that from Thompson. There’s also some fantastic location photography from veteran cinematographer Joe MacDonald but, despite that, there’s too much reliance on obvious back projection. The only real complaint I have is one shockingly bad effects shot which involves a rope bridge and what looks like an Action Man tied to a toy horse.
OK, this is no masterpiece of cinema but, as I said, it is a movie that I have fond memories of and I’m willing to overlook or forgive many of its faults. Perhaps others who came to it later in life would not be so generous. Sony’s DVD of Mackenna’s Gold is a reasonable transfer. I have the R2 which is anamorphic scope (I have heard that the R1 may be a pan and scan effort – if I’m wrong, feel free to correct me) and it is generally clear but the process shots do stick out like a sore thumb.
5 thoughts on “Mackenna’s Gold”
In R1, like many of their classic titles, Sony originally issued the film with a nice anamorphic OAR transfer on one side and a P&S version on the other.
A couple of years ago, some suit at Sony decided this was a complete waste of time and effort, and like many other titles, canned the OAR transfer and reissued the set with simply the P&S version, they said ‘in order to make it more accessible and affordable for consumers’ (a real WTF comment if ever there was one)…unfortunately, for the first run at least, they didn’t change the box art which told consumers that they were buying a set which contained both. There were, you can imagine, howls of outrage.
Like you, Colin, I bought the R2, just in case they pulled the same stunt here, but thankfully they’ve not gone down that route here.
Like you, I saw this as a child and loved it – at the massive screen of the Odeon in Leeds – and have retained a soft spot for it, although as an adult I find it infuriatingly plodding in places. Obviously an attempt to recreate the success of The Guns Of Navarone – but the lack of David Niven and Anthony Quinn is all too obvious, especially when we’re lumbered with Omar Sharif instead.
This Gregory Peck western remains my guilty pleasure, too. I actually saw this one first-run, Colin. I think me and my school-mate kept coming back to it for its sheer fun, and that partial nude scene by Julie Newmar ;-). Great to know I’m in good company.
What’s not to like about it! 🙂
It’s not a great film by any means but there’s just so much to enjoy.
I envy you seeing it in the cinema when it first came out. Thanks Michael.
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