The Big Sky (1952, Howard Hawks)

Kinda like Rio Bravo in the sense that you’ve got good, tough characters who team up against serious odds, but the ending leaves me less with the sense that I’ve seen an epic drama or action flick than a buddy comedy. It’s too darned happy to be a Western, gives the same sense of companionable fulfillment as a Renoir movie.

Bigetsu Skyogatari:

Colorfully narrated (“Jim seed somethin’ in the trees, and Jim were the curious sort”) by elder fur trapper Zeb (Arthur Hunnicutt, baddie in The Tall T), who we don’t even meet for twenty minutes. Starting in 1832 Kentucky, the movie mainly follows Jim (Kirk Douglas, year after Ace in the Hole) and Jim’s new buddy/Zeb’s nephew Boone (Dewey Martin of a couple other Hawks movies). They’re both going west, searching for freedom and profit, Jim more aimless and easygoing, Boone seeking his uncle and hoping to revenge his brother’s death by bagging a few native Blackfoot.

Jim, Boone, Zeb:

The three men meet in jail after a bar brawl, then join an ambitious trapper named Frenchy (Steven Geray of Verboten!), who hopes to bypass the monopolistic fur company headed by frilly-shirted top-hatted MacMasters (voiceover man Paul Frees). Frenchy’s secret to being able to trade with the Blackfoot, who won’t deal with MacMasters’s people, is that Frenchy has one of the chief’s daughters Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt, in her only film), is escorting her home. After we’re introduced to the strong, stereotype-defying Teal Eye, the movie compensates by hiring along the drunk, buffoonish Poordevil (Hank Worden, a marshall in Forty Guns).

Noble Indian:

Nutty Indian:

I think it takes months to go up the river, the men mostly pulling the boat upstream with ropes. MacMasters’s muscle man Streak kills a couple men, and more are killed by the Blackfoot’s rival Crow tribe hired by Streak, but Jim, Zeb and Boone, hired for the trading group’s protection, finally wipe out the lot of the sneaky sonsobitches. Meanwhile, both of the younger guns have fallen for Teal Eye, and there’s some drama over that. Zeb was once in the same situation, left a girl behind and she killed herself – and he was lying to Boone about the whole murdered brother thing. Boone is told none of this, because apparently it’s better for a man to make his own uninformed decisions, but opts to stay behind with the Blackfoot at the end anyhow.

My new favorite method of torture: having a strong fellow squeeze two baddies’ heads together

Tag G.: “Action is only an extension in character, and character, like the action it ignites, is biological, zoological. Vast events in many Hawks films are pushed by character.” So he analyzes their characters, answering why Zeb is telling his story about Jim instead of about himself or his own nephew Boone, when Jim gets lost and injured, has no particular goals, and doesn’t get the girl. Jim and Zeb are men of talk and whiskey, while Boone is a man of action. At the end of the trip, Frenchy and Boone have destinations – Jim and Zeb just have each other.

The first major studio film in the sound era to be shot all on location – I watched the long/original version, not the contentiously cut-down theatrical release.

Related posts