MACKENNA’S GOLD “was a terrible western, just wretched.” Don’t just take star Gregory Peck’s brutally honest verdict on this 1969 mega-turkey: watch, stunned, as an okay premise is wrung into something laugh aloud awful when key elements like script, direction, editing, casting and special effects get left in the deal-making stage. Though flopping in the U.S., for whatever reasons this became a big hit in India and the Soviet Union. Who said the World makes sense?
The search for the legendary ‘Cañon del Oro’ brings rugged individuals and competing scurvy crews together in an escalating series of showdowns, kidnappings, betrayals and battles across forbidding desert terrain, but the ‘Canyon of Gold’, guarded by spirits, exacts a fearful cost. Decent types are represented by flinty ‘Marshal Sam Mackenna’ (Peck) and innocent abductee ‘Inga Bergemann’ (Camilla Sparv, with hairstyle a century advanced), but long odds have them pitted against murderous bandits, vengeful Apaches, a duplicitous cavalryman and a gaggle of ore-hungry townsmen.
Omar Sharif leads the baddies in a varmint quota that includes Telly Savalas, Eli Wallach, Edward G. Robinson, Ted Cassidy (dubbed), Julie Newmar, Anthony Quayle, Lee J. Cobb, Keenan Wynn, Raymond Massey (final role) and Burgess Meredith, who has a total of four lines. Most of them don’t last long, though the movie seems to go on forever, talking itself in boring circles between inserting plenty of repetitive action, most of it sloppily done, much downright pitiful.
Written & produced by Carl Foreman, directed by J. Lee Thompson, the screenplay, not cluttered enough, is needlessly padded with a folksy narration (from Victor Jory), telling us what we don’t need to know or what we can already see. Peck and supporting hardy Quayle had good luck working with Thompson and Foreman on the WW2 adventure The Guns Of Navarone, but while it all clicked on that classic, nearly everything went south on this one, Thompson’s first run at a western, Foreman’s first since High Noon. *
Credit where due: thanks to cameraman Joseph MacDonald, much of it looks grand in his capturing of vast scenic vistas provided by shooting in Utah (Glen Canyon, Paria, Kanab Canyon, Bryce Canyon), Arizona (Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley) and Oregon (near Medford and the Rouge River). Quincy Jones gave it a decent music score, though that’s mitigated some by having to endure a truly dopey song, “Old Turkey Buzzard” sung by Jose Feliciano. Sharif has fun, energetically playing the cheerful villain ‘John Colorado’; Robinson, Quayle and Wallach bring some effortless gravitas; Peck’s solid enough considering the cheesy material.
Dealing with the convoluted plot, unpleasant characters, dreary gab and multiple unexciting chases and fights would be more bearable if the other end of the visual presentation wasn’t ruined by blatantly lazy rear projection scenes (right out of the 40s), obvious matte shots, dubious miniatures, easily spotted stunt doubles, woefully articulated dummies, klutzy changes in film stock (65mm to 35mm) and a ten-minute earthquake scene so phony you could do better in a sandbox. **
Aghast at the results (Peck’s biographer Gary Fishgall pegs the budget bullfrog swollen to $14,500,000), Columbia cut it down from an intended torture session of three hours to a “Roadshow” cut that ran 136 (with Overture, Intermission/Entr’acte and Exit Music), which was then further trimmed for the general release to 128 minutes. Coherence vanished.
Razzed unmercifully for its waste and ineptitude, shot down like a frothing coyote compared to The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and True Grit, in the States it made just $8,900,000, #30 for the year. But Mumbai and Moscow went wild for the West, as legions in India (a huge success) and the USSR (an estimated sixty-three million people saw it there) rode to a who-knew? rescue that took the global bounty to $40,876,000.
With Eduardo Ciannelli, Robert Phillips, Dick Hogan, Shelley Morrison, Rudy Diaz and Trevor Bardette.
* Western historian J. Frank Dobie’s “Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver” documented the story of the vain searches for the ‘Lost Adams Diggings’. His work and the legends inspired prolific Heck Allen, under his pseudonym Will Henry, to write his 1963 novel “Mackenna’s Gold”, laying the fateful groundwork for this red-headed stepchild of a picture.
** more vital history—Playboy did posterity duty, publishing a pictorial of Newmar that included the nude swimming scene her murderous ‘Hesh-ke’ takes, culminating in another of the movies ridiculous action scenes, tackling Peck and Sparv underwater. Throughout, Newmar has no dialogue, just glaring balefully with a fake-looking scar as part of the phony ‘Apache’ makeup they slathered her with.