Mackenna's Gold (1969) / Western-Action

MPAA Rated: M for mature audiences; would be PG-13 today for brief nudity and violence
Running time:
128 min.

Cast: Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, Telly Savalas, Camilla Sparv, Keenan Wynn, Julie Newmar, Ted Cassidy, Lee J. Cobb, Raymond Massey, Burgess Meredith, Anthony Quayle, Edward G. Robinson, Eli Wallach
Director: J. Lee Thompson

Screenplay: Carl Foreman (based on the novel by Will Henry, aka Heck Allen)
Review published July 14, 2008

Caution: The following review contains general details about the film's finale. Read at your own risk.

The fact that a young George Lucas would be on location in Utah during the shooting of part of Mackenna's Gold (documenting the making of the film as part of his student studies for USC) would forever link the 1969 Western to the stories Lucas would write later for his Indiana Jones series of action-adventures.  Not that the two projects deserve to be on equal footing, as Lucas' treatments are certainly a more successful series in many ways, but the older film's ending in particular would be so similar, including the use of the arc of the sun to find the location of a hidden treasure (Raiders),  the location to the treasure hidden in a hole in the wall in the middle of nowhere (The Last Crusade), and the malevolence associated with taking treasure that is not for those worthy to take resulting in the destruction of the location (Last Crusade, and, to some extent, Raiders)Many other comparisons can be made (a rope bridge scene (Temple of Doom), clinging to precipices, blondes gone crazy with treasure fever, etc.), but too many exist to think that the film didn't have at least a subconscious influence, although the ending of 1999's The Mummy would have a similar homage, only more blatant.

Mackenna's Gold stars Gregory Peck (Roman Holiday, Spellbound) as Marshal Sam Mackenna, who is bushwhacked one day by an old Apache man who suspects the law man of trying to steal his map containing the secret location of a canyon of gold in Apache territory.  Mackenna doesn't believe it, burning the map shortly before the arrival of a team of bandits, led by the charismatic Mexican bandito, Colorado (Sharif, Top Secret!).  Colorado forces Mackenna by gunpoint to lead them to the location he is sure that the marshal had taken to memory before he destroyed the map.  However, word travels fast in these parts, and soon the rush is on among a few factions of thieves -- desperados and rogue cavalrymen --  to make their way to get "all the gold in the world." 

Despite its rumored influence on some big blockbusters to appear decades later, Mackenna's Gold remains to this day a forgotten Western, emerging from a time when non-spaghetti westerns were finding it difficult to find an audience.   As a result, what was originally intended as a three-hour epic was gutted by a nervous studio to just a smidge over two hours, resulting in the loss of many scenes featuring some big name stars that surely would not have been utilized for such minuscule roles in the final cut. 

As directed by J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear), the film is a mixed bag of interesting visuals.  The aerial photography around the vast canyons is certainly breathtaking, and the finale that sees monolithic rock formations tumble down stirs up a combination of awe and sadness at seeing such beauty that took centuries to form blasted with dynamite for the making of a film.  Thompson has a keen eye for POV experimentation, placing cameras under horses and in other odd locations to give us action unlike any we may have seen before.  The experiments are hit or miss, but these shots do break up the monotony of what surely would be a routine Western otherwise.  The Oscar-nominated score by Quincy Jones (The Italian Job, The Getaway) also keeps the film rather distinct, especially in the Jose Feliciano-sung ballad at the beginning of the film, "Old Turkey Buzzard". 

At the same time that the visuals can impress, Thompson took the film beyond a budget that he could sustain.  The result is that many scenes are marred by obvious miniatures.  The scene on a wooden rope bridge looks like it were made with children's toys, with unmoving figures that I can't imagine even fooled audiences in 1969, much less those watching today.  Later scenes of moving ground and tumbling rock have the appearance of being made in a sandbox.  A falling figure from a high precipice looks like like what it is -- a dummy thrown off of a cliff.  Many scenes on horseback have the actors perform in front of obvious projected images, many incongruous with the movement of the riders.  Outdoor environs alternate between nighttime shots of characters camping out on what appears to be a movie set, juxtaposed with daylight shots on location in the desert country of Monument Valley Utah and Arizona, among other scenic vistas.  Matted shots mar most of the cliff scenes.  For such a robust and sprawling adventure, it looks like about 80% of the film were shot in studio.

Truth be told, it doesn't appear from the finished product, gutted though it may be, that Thompson's film would have what it took to enthrall audiences, even if kept at its intended three-hour run time.  One of the major obstacles to the film's ultimate success is the fact that there are scenes that are very talky and run on far too long.  Interesting that the studio still kept a lengthy and practically superfluous scene where the characters frolic in a hidden oasis, showing off some of the stunning Julie Newmar's assets in underwater photography.  Newmar as an unspeaking Apache squaw is laughable, especially with her sculpted eyebrows, but the male pig in me did appreciate the scene even if the film critic in me did not (a random and needless side note: this film reunites TV's "Batman"'s Catwoman (Newmar) and Penguin (Meredith) prior to their characters collaborating on the big screen in Batman Returns).  Like many Westerns of its day, authenticity was not on the agenda, as the Apaches look mostly like very tanned (or painted) Caucasians, and Egyptian-born Sharif appears to have crossed the border from Mexico by way of western Asia.  Camilla Sparv (The Trouble with Angels, Downhill Racer), who plays a woman kidnapped by Colorado early on in the film, always looks fresh from the dressing room, perpetually wearing mascara (a cosmetic which the old West did not even have).

There are some interesting themes developed, though they still pale in significance to the great Treasure of the Sierra Madre, regardless of the amount of spectacle and recognizable stars they try to throw in. While some segments of the film do offer intrigue, the larger problems of budget, pacing, casting and anachronisms ultimately keep Mackenna's Gold as primarily only of appeal to hardcore western aficionados.  Like the Old West, it's sprawling and undisciplined territory for a filmmaker whose reach exceeds his grasp, with a storyline duct taped together by a narrator (Victor Jory), trying to give the semblance of a rip-roaring adventure without the means to bring Thompson's dreams to life.  If for no other reason, we should be thankful that these ideas weren't quite successful so that Lucas could borrow from his remembrances later, except with the budget and expertise to actually carry them through.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2008 Vince Leo