Across The Wide Missouri

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ACROSS THE WIDE MISSOURI, a 1951 western favorite starring Clark Gable and the Rocky Mountains, has a lot to recommend it—the commanding star and a strong supporting cast, a fine director striving for naturalism and stunning Colorado locations in rich Technicolor—even if it’s only half a movie, thanks to drastic studio-imposed editing, chopped with the bluntness of tomahawks.

In the 1830s, rugged fur-trapper ‘Flint Mitchell’ (Gable) leads a party of Mountain Men into the Blackfoot territory of the Rockies, guided by ‘Kamiah’ (María Elena Marqués), a beautiful and high-spirited Nez Perce woman he’s married. Initially, his end of the marital deal is to return her to her people, and hers is to guide the white men to rich, un-worked beaver country. But the two form a genuine loving bond and eventually have a child. Peace and friendship with an aged tribal leader ends when he’s ambushed by a vengeful trapper and the chief’s fierce young-blood successor, ‘Iron Shirt’ (Ricardo Montalban) decides to wipe out the intruders.

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With cameraman William C. Mellor capturing the action at pristine mountain lakes, streams and meadows, in elevations ranging upwards from 9,000 feet, director William A. Wellman put the cast and crew through their paces.  At least $2,220,000 was expended to achieve the authenticity the material demanded (some sources suggest it was more than twice that amount). Though the story and script written by Talbot Jennings contained action, the overall thrust was recreating period, place and attitudes by investing in details and characterizations. Wellman turned in a deliberately crafted 135-minute version that took time with its peoples and their lifestyles, and for once included the Indian characters speaking in their native tongues.

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Then, after a solitary lukewarm preview, skittish MGM brass unceremoniously cut it to pieces, taking out nearly an hour, hewing it down to just 78 minutes, injecting a narration (from Howard Keel) to patch over jagged continuity. A number of the supporting cast saw their work vanish (James Whitmore, who’d just earned an Oscar nomination for Wellman’s Battleground, is left with a handful of lines and isn’t even given screen credit). The studio managed likewise butchery on another Americana epic the same year, using grapeshot on John Huston’s The Red Badge Of Courage. More than a bit put off, Wellman disowned the picture: “I’ve never seen it and I never will.” *

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Typical studio hype. It did not take a year to make (it took seven weeks). It did not have a cast of thousands. The huge picture of Gable was lifted from 1940s “Boom Town”, and the Indian girl with the leg show was nowhere to be seen.

Not the blockbuster intended, it still drew Gable fans: Cogerson lists it placing 14th for the year, with a gross of $8,000,000, though if the cost figures were indeed on the high end, it would have registered as a failure.

Though hard living had taken its toll, Gable at 49 was still a screen-dominating presence to contend with: he looks fittingly heroic in buckskins, whether participating in a comically rowdy brawl during ‘Rendevous’, teasing his comely wife or fighting to the death in the woods: a ramrod comes in handy. In her US debut, Mexican actress Marqués holds her own in the charm department, Montalban is buffed, and lending colorful support are Adolph Menjou, John Hodiak and J. Carrol Naish (great humorous bit with a suit of armor).

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Using Durango as a base, the grand Colorado locations included La Plata Canyon, Little Boyce Lake, Molas Lake and Ouray County. There’s a fine score by David Raksin. The movie does feel truncated, and there are a few obvious uses of stunt doubles, but the pleasures outweigh any debits.

Also in the cast: Alan Napier, George Chandler, Richard Anderson, Douglas Fowley, Russell Simpson, Fred Graham, Frank McGrath and Timothy Carey (debut, face down in the water, as a corpse: the very strange young actor had hitchhiked from New York to gamble on getting a part in a movie).

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* The studio had a perverse habit in the 50s of mangling epic-scale work brought in by prestigious directors, partially botching such intriguing pictures as Moonfleet (Fritz Lang, 1955) and Bhowani Junction (George Cukor, 1956). The Wellman-Huston hatchet jobs are the worst, and it’s a testament to the film-makers that both Across The Wide Missouri and The Red Badge Of Courage succeed despite being edited by artillery. The footage was discarded: thank you, show-businessmen.

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The fetching María Elena Marqués was best known for 1947s The Pearl, with the great Pedro Armendariz, directed by legendary Emilio Fernandez. At 23 here, she only made one more appearance in a Hollywood picture, again playing a Native American, Navajo this time, in the 1953 B-flick Ambush At Tomahawk Gap, which also featured John Hodiak. Along with dozens of Mexican films, she starred in hundreds of episodes on 10 different telenovas.

The production took both short and long-term toll on 29-year-old Ricardo Montalban. w Thrown from a horse, he landed on his back— on a rock—and then was trod on by another horse.  Spinal damage saw him in constant, worsening pain for the rest of his life. In 1993, 9½ hours of corrective operation left him paralyzed from the waist down.

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Talbot Jenning’s story traced ancestry to the 1947 book of the same name by historian Bernard De Voto, a 480-page tome (part of a trilogy) that earned him a Pulitzer Prize. With all the gazillion westerns done for the movies and TV, the explorations of the West by the free-ranging mountain men only feature in a handful—but it’s a hardy bunch—The Big Sky, Jeremiah Johnson, The Mountain Men, The Revenant, Man In The Wilderness. And you have to add James Stewart’s ‘Linus Rawlings’ from the first segment of How The West Was Won.  Across The Wide Missouri is one of my earliest movie memories–Gable in buckskins, that charming maiden, and Ricardo getting skewered by a ramrod: time to go play in the back yard!

Nowadays, of course, when Internet nannies review this movie, they feel p.c.-bound (or is it ‘strangled’?) to note with trepidation that the four Native American roles were filled by two Mexicans (Marqués and Montalban) and two Anglos (Naish and Jack Holt–with a bad dye job). Beware!–you might be improperly entertained. Take selfies of your emotional scars, Facebook ’em to me, and I’ll tote them around for you– because we don’t have anything else more pressing to deal with. “Trees lie where they fall, and men were buried where they died.”

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