A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro
Last night, re-watched a movie I saw about a hundred times during my childhood, made during the twilight of the grand Hollywood western, a film that has its moments and is not *not* fun, but is notable today for the sheer amount of talent wasted on its aggressive stupidity. MACKENNA’S GOLD. Directed by J. Lee Thompson, who was also only responsible for, you know, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. Starring Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, Telly Savalas, Keenan Wynn, Lee J. Cobb, Raymond Massey, Ted Cassidy, Julie Newmar, Burgess Meredith, Anthony Quayle, Edward G. Robinson, and Eli Wallach. *That* is a cast. And the story is so aggressively stupid that even Stephen Sommers might have said, “Oh, no. No. No. No, no, no.”
Sharif wants to find a legendary Apache canyon of gold, but only Peck saw the map before it was destroyed, so he takes Peck prisoner and Peck is forced to led him and his gang to the bonanza Peck doesn’t even believe in.
Among other sins: some of the most laughable special effects you ever saw. Really. Awful rear-screen projection during horseback riding scenes. The heroine has a fight with Julie Newmar while both are galloping horses on a narrow path into the canyon, and Julie Newmar comes off the worse for it, falling the requisite long distance to her death..but not only does NOBODY make any comment about Newmar’s death afterward, but the falling body is the most obvious dummy you have ever, ever, EVER seen.
Another passage has the whole gang cross a river using one of those paddle-ferries. But “the current is too strong” and they cannot control the ferry, encountering white water rapids and a raging waterfall right around the bend. Who the hell would EVER put a ferry in that particular spot? What kind of maniac?
Jeez, I just now realized ANOTHER reason this movie makes no sense.
The final step of the journey to the canyon is to stand beside a giant natural stone pillar at dawn, and race really fast to follow the shadow the pillar makes as it points its way to a tiny crack in the rock.
So there’s a scene where everybody on horses rides like the devil to outpace the shadow as it elongates toward the crack in the mountain, at dawn.
And yet — at DAWN, that shadow will be as long as it will be, in that direction, all day long; as the sun rises, that shadow will SHORTEN. The scene of Peck, Sharif, and company, riding like the devil to outrace that elongating shadow — which is already stupid because it implies that they can ride their horses faster than the rotation of the Earth — is ALSO stupid because the shadow will NOT get longer as the sun rises behind it; no shadow will ever behave that way.
There’s also the fact that *after* the big gratuitous earthquake at the end, after the canyon is gold is buried by fallen rock, after the obelisk that leads to it tumbles to the ground, and only Gregory Peck and whatserface survive to ride away with gold nuggets in their saddlebags…they STILL KNOW HOW TO GET THERE. The gold is still where it always was; all MacKenna has to do is stake a claim and start up a mining company. The movie gives the impression that the canyon is lost forever, and it really isn’t.
In later years, a movie like this is also instructive for demonstrating the screenplays that left the main star exceptionally bored. I mean, this is GREGORY PECK. Atticus Finch. SPELLBOUND. THE GUNS OF NAVARONE. GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT. CAPE FEAR. Greatness in performance, even in not-great films, all the way up to his last role of substance, OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY opposite Danny DeVito. This guy was even great in AMAZING GRACE AND CHUCK. In MCKENNA’S GOLD? Hello, here I am. I’m Gregory Peck. Show me where to stand.
I would also point that this was at the tail end of the era where westerns — as a leading movie genre — pretty much died for good, so we had stuff this laughable and as laughable as James Stewart’s THE RARE BREED, lots and lots of really lame and/or square and/or stupid stuff that failed to speak to the times at all — and the backlash to that, in the persons of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman and even William Goldman’s Butch and Sundance, resulted in some of the terrific examples of the form, even as the ship went down. I would dearly a dip in the popularity of science fiction, and particularly superhero films, if those genres could also experience such a reinvigorating backlash. But I doubt that it will ever happen.