Seeing Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, Telly Savalas and Julie Newmar in a western is enough to make any progressive male’s ovaries drop, but is it any good?
One cannot fault Mackenna’s Gold’s plot (I don’t think I’ve ever used apostrophes in consecutive words before). A group of people seek a lost canyon of gold. As an added bonus, the canyon is Apache-cursed. Alliances are made. Betrayals happen. These are the elements of a cracking tale.
The film is based on a novel by Will Henry, which was based on the Lost Adams Diggings, which are famous enough to be an Unsolved Mysteries episode. Supposedly, the canyon of gold is still out there somewhere, guarded by Lizard People and their master, Madonna.
Mackenna’s Gold cost $7 million and made $41 million. Most of that came from Russia and India. For whatever reason, Mackenna’s Gold did gangbusters in those two countries but failed in North America. Maybe because 1969 was a strong year for westerns, and it got lost in the shuffle: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Once Upon a Time in the West, True Grit, the legendary The Wild Bunch, and, of course, Clint Eastwood’s greatest western, Paint Your Wagon.
Mackenna’s Gold also gave a couple of young USC filmmakers a chance to cut their teeth making a documentary on its production. One of those young filmmakers was George Lucas. You may have heard of him. He went on to produce Radioland Murders.
John Lee Thompson directed Mackenna’s Gold. He has a solid resume: Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, and two Planet of the Apes movies. He also directed a slew of Cannon films: 10 to Midnight, King Solomon’s Mines, Firewalker, and Death Wish 4, among others.
Add all that up, and Mackenna’s Gold is an interesting but flawed flick.
A Golden Shower Of Talent
When it comes to the pantheon of great actors, Peck ranks high, probably only a notch below James Stewart, who is my personal GOAT (your mileage may vary).
Peck has films that set him apart from Stewart, however: Duel in the Sun (AKA Lust in the Dust), Moby Dick, The Omen, and The Boys From Brazil. I can’t see Stewart in those roles, but I can see Stewart in To Kill a Mockingbird, which is probably Peck’s most famous role.
Peck headlines Mackenna’s Gold as Mackenna. A marshal with a somewhat mysterious past, he comes into possession of a treasure map. He believes the treasure is a pipe dream, so he burns the map. Yet, his ability as a gambler to remember cards means the map is still in his head, which gives the villain a reason to keep Mackenna around.
The villain is played by Omar Sharif. Peck may get top-billing, but Mackenna’s Gold is Sharif’s film. He clearly relishes playing a bad guy. Omar took the part because his son didn’t like his father’s romantic films and wanted to…
“See his father in a strong-man lead who kills everyone.”
Ah, the good old days when folks knew how to properly process violence in movies, even children.
The sub-villain is portrayed by Ted Cassidy, who was Lurch on The Addam’s Family. Imagine if James Bond was a Native American production. Cassidy’s character would fit right in as an Apache Jaws.
Julie Newmar is the sub-sub-villain — a scarred squaw with a penchant for molesting Peck. She even molests Peck underwater, which inspired Faith No More to write Underwater Love. Okay, I made that up, but I’m not making up the fact that Mackenna’s Gold prevented Newmar from reprising Catwoman on the third season of Batman. That is how Eartha Kitt got the part.
Telly Savalas plays Telly Savalas as the sub-sub-sub-villain. An overly-large cast is one of Mackenna’s Gold’s weak points. The movie brings a sizeable group of characters together, sets each one up and dumps the majority of them in the most unceremonious ways possible. It’s like the screenwriter sat down to their poolside typewriter, sipped a margarita and said…
“I’m not getting paid per character, and it is too much work keeping everyone straight. How can I kill roughly 99.9999 percent of the cast in three minutes?”
The other possibility is that the first cut of Mackenna’s Gold was three hours long and included an intermission. Columbia executives insisted on knocking that down to two hours. Here are some of the other actors that got short-changed, as a possible result.
Keenan Wynn, who insisted Peter Sellers would answer to the Coca-Cola Company in Dr. Strangelove, gets to kiss a gender-confused man and is shot a short time later.
Lee J. Cobb, who played the quintessential Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman and Lieutenant Kinderman in The Exorcist, is a newspaper editor who…actually, I have no idea what happened to him in Mackenna’s Gold. One minute he is there. The next moment he is not there.
Burgess Meredith gets approximately four lines, and none of them are as good as a line he delivered in the crazy ventriloquist movie, Magic, starring Anthony Hopkins.
“I’m sitting here with three of our genius lawyers. Their IQs alone must total up to 100.”
Edward G. Robinson pops into Mackenna’s Gold as a blind prospector who found the secret canyon before Apache warriors stuck a torch in his eyes. He momentarily steals the movie with a monologue, only to later stumble toward the camera and out of the picture.
Eli Wallach, who gifted us with one of cinema’s greatest villains in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is in Mackenna’s Gold. He makes a main character speech, aaaaaaaaand he’s gone.
James Dean lookalike Robert Porter, who stars in one of my favorite westerns, Firecreek (which also happens to star James Stewart) plays the aforementioned gender-confused man. Firecreek is reviewed here. Porter and Anthony Quayle (Lawrence of Arabia) are an Englishman duo. They are given unique outfits to make them stand out. Plus, Porter even gets a brief fight scene in their setup. This does not stop both of them from exiting the movie on a dime a short time later.
Problems like this prevent Mackenna’s Gold from being a classic. Plenty of other movies effectively manage an ensemble cast. For example, How The West Was Won, did it with the western genre seven years earlier. Mackenna’s Gold is no How The West Was Won. Let’s look closer at why.
I Love (Hate) Goooooooooold!
When Mackenna’s Gold is good, it’s fun. When it’s bad, it’s clumsy.
One clumsy aspect is a narrator that sounds straight from The Dukes of Hazard. It seems that the narrator was inserted into the film after it was cut down as a way to keep the audience informed. Totally unnecessary. Mackenna’s Gold is not complicated enough to need motivation explained. A group of people hunt for gold and do what movie characters always do when hunting for gold.
What is the last good treasure-hunting movie we’ve had? I’m hard-pressed to think of any. I reviewed one such film (Mother Lode) a while back, but that is from the 1980s. I suppose the National Treasure movies may count but not to me. I want to see a rough group of men travel into the wilderness and look for a treasure that decimates their ranks and causes nastiness to break out.
Moving on… despite being shrunk down to two hours, Mackenna’s Gold still has a fair degree of dead time. Essentially it is a chase/road movie, but it includes a lot of going nowhere. The most egregious example of this is toward the end. Three characters make a harrowing climb up a cliff side. Once they get to the top, they have a knock-down, drag-out battle with a tomahawk.
And then all three of them climb back down the cliffside…
All that build-up, fighting and time, and the movie basically renders it all meaningless. Total busy work with zero accomplishment. Unforgiveable.
For reasons like this, even the star was critical of the film. Peck called Mackenna’s Gold “…a terrible western, just wretched.” I imagine in 2023, the main star would say something like…
“We made a great film, full of strong women, sassy homosexuals and a powerful message — give America back to the Apache people…except for my house, property and money. If you don’t see this movie, you are a racist bigot. Hail, Satan.”
If one thinks Mackenna’s Gold got shafted in the editing room, Richard Burton gives one pause on that theory. He read the script and said, “what a lot of rubbish…”
Nevertheless, Mackenna’s Gold does have a few good qualities.
The camera work is nice. The movie was filmed in the Zuni Mountains, New Mexico; Glen Canyon, Utah; and Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. The scenery lends an otherworldly quality to the film, as if the characters are trekking across a desert planet.
Thompson also gives Mackenna’s Gold a bit of inventiveness with his camera work. He uses some creative setups, not at the level of Dusk ‘Til Dawn 2 (underrated B-movie with goofy camera work that makes me smile), but still more adventurous than normal for the times.
For example, Thompson sways the camera when characters cross a rope bridge; he straps a camera to a horse and has a bunch of them go thundering down a steep slope; and he even hitches a camera to a man’s back as he is dragged by a horse
The scene where Omar reveals what he will do with his share of the gold is also nicely done. It culminates with a gag that is almost a 1990s Simpsons joke. Omar is lying on the ground in his trail clothes. We are in Peck’s point-of-view, and a jump cut makes Omar suddenly appear to be wearing a fancy suit. Then we jump cut back to him wearing his trail clothes again.
Finally, the third act of Mackenna’s Gold gets to the fun stuff. First, the rising sun points out the hidden canyon (never mind pesky logic that dictates shadows grow shorter as the sun rises). The group rides hell for leather down a switchback trail to the base of the canyon. There, one wall contains a mammoth gold vein. A stream flowing through the canyon is filled with gold dust. Eventually, it all comes crashing down in a low-rent Emmerich way. Sure, the miniatures border on terrible, but it is all kind of charming in its own way.
The outro with the surviving characters is also solid. We then leave the movie with its theme song, Old Turkey Buzzard, which was written by Quincy Jones. Fans of David Letterman may recognize the tune. Letterman used it as a running gag in 2007.
X MARKS THE NOT
Mackenna’s Gold is not a hidden treasure. It’s more fool’s gold than classic, and its good only slightly outweighs its bad. Nevertheless, a quaintness exists to it when viewed through a modern lens. Plus, seeing that many great actors onscreen is always a treat.
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