Outposter Wrenage contributes another Retro Review. This time, the legend that is Chuck.
Mother Lode frustrates. An awesome movie exists somewhere inside of it, but like the gold the characters are trying to mine from the earth, the awesomeness proves just out of reach.
Mother Lode never achieved much buzz. It got a limited release in the fabled year of 1982, which is considered one of the best years of movies ever. Looking through the list of 1982 films, I’m not going to argue the point. Great movie after great movie pops out. Frankly, it is a bit depressing when compared to what we consider a great movie year nowadays.
Despite not having much of a showing in theaters, Mother Lode has a notable pedigree. It’s a Heston affair, as in Charlton Heston. Mother Lode stars Heston; it was directed by Heston; it was produced by Heston’s company; and it was written by Heston’s son.
What’s unique about Heston is his ability to bounce between historical epics like The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, Anthony and Cleopatra, Midway and genre epics like Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, Soylent Green and Airport ‘75. Heston even has a mummy movie to his credit, The Awakening, and popped up in Wayne’s World 2 and True Lies.
Heston is part of two scenes so famous, they got Simpson parodies. The guy is a legend.
I’M SILAS MCGEE
Heston plays a crazy Scottish miner in Mother Lode. How does he do? Awesome is how he does. Heston is magnetic onscreen with his wild hair and beard as he swings between congenial and psycho. I don’t know how accurate his Scottish accent is, but when he points the Finger of Doom and says, “Stay the hell out of my mine, laddie,” I would stay the hell out of his mine. Post haste.
Starring opposite Heston is Nick Mancuso.
Believe it or not, Mancuso was in the running for Indiana Jones at one point. Since that didn’t happen, Mancuso went on to have his own TV show on NBC, Stingray, which ran 1985-1987. Mancuso played a mysterious character with a 1965 Corvette who helps people out. Stingray is a martial artist, a skilled computer hacker, has a photographic memory and can even slow down his heartbeat.
It’s almost like they based the character on me…
I never saw Stingray because our TV wouldn’t get NBC, but it sounds like something sufficiently wacky to check out. It is currently on Youtube.
Mancuso also showed up in both of Steven Seagal’s Under Siege films. Plus, he appeared in Oliver Stone’s miniseries Wild Palms. Anyone remember that one? Ben Savage playing an eleven-year-old psycho is what I remember most about it.
Playing the requisite girl in Mother Lode is Kim Basinger. This was Basinger’s second feature film. She went on to have a decent career that probably culminated in the 1991 Alec Baldwin comedy, The Marrying Man.
Rounding out the Mother Lode cast is John Marley, the guy who ended up with a horse head in his bed in The Godfather. Marley plays the Greek Chorus in Mother Lode. He shows up every so often and says things like, “You don’t want to go up there…”
WHEN A MAN SHINNIES DOWN INTO THE SLIME OF THE EARTH…
Mother Lode has a simple, but great, hook — a prospector disappears looking for a fabled gold vein in the Canadian wilderness. The prospector’s friend, along with a lady, take a float plane and try to follow the man’s trail. They end up butting heads with a crazy miner.
We don’t have enough people-go-looking-for-gold movies anymore, stuff like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and MacKenna’s Gold. There is something fascinating about people going out into the wilderness to scratch a fortune out of the ground.
Mother Lode has a great wilderness atmosphere. Setting and cinematography are excellent. The viewer really gets the sense these people are out in the middle of nowhere. The woods look sufficiently foggy, lush, scary and beautiful. Waterfalls and crystal lakes abound. The aerial shots as the plane flies into no man’s land are nicely done. It reminds one of High Road To China.
Furthermore, set design is fantastic. Heston’s cabin looks like it literally grew out of the earth — a Hobbit hole from hell. The mines are spectacular. I thought they were real caves, but the DVD extra said they were a set. The mines in Mother Lode are not the kind of mines you see in TV westerns, with nice square shafts, trolley tracks, support beams and lightbulbs every few feet.
The mines are nasty. They’re dark, dusty in places, wet in others and full of twisting malformed tunnels littered with rusty equipment. There are bottomless pits and ladders that seem to stretch forever. A person doesn’t walk through the mines in Mother Lode, they crawl through them.
All of the practical work in Mother Lode is solid. Music is foreboding. Lighting is spooky. The film has an almost horror movie vibe in spots, complete with effectively-edited ax swinging.
Mother Lode is also noteworthy for containing a genuine plane crash. A float plane attempts a “glassy water” landing. This occurs when the lake is calm, which can make it difficult for the pilot to eyeball their height above the water.
The pilot hit the water at the wrong angle. The plane’s left float hooked, causing the right float to do the same. The plane then slewed around, flipped over and sank.
No one was hurt, and the Heston decided to write the crash into the film.
AH LASSIE, YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE DONE THAT…
Heston’s son, Fraser Clarke, wrote Mother Lode. It was the second film he wrote. The Mountain Men was the first. I actually remember seeing The Mountain Men…not on NBC, of course, but on some other network channel. The movie starred Charlton Heston and Brian Keith. I mainly remember it for the part where Brian Keith gets scalped.
Fraser also did some director work. He was a second-unit director on City Slickers, and he directed his father (and a young Christian Bale) in the 1990 TV film version of Treasure Island.
Ultimately, it seems the writing is where Mother Lode goes awry, particularly in the storytelling aspect of the movie. The dialogue is fine. In fact, the dialogue is, if you pardon the pun, solid gold.
I consider Mother Lode as a companion piece to The Keep. Both movies have great concepts, awesome setups and lovely atmosphere, but they start to lose their way as the movie goes along. Let’s go through some of the issues of Mother Lode. There will be some spoilers, but the point of this review is that there is a good movie in there. I find it interesting to examine what went wrong.
The Mancuso character is a bit confusing. To a degree, this was intentional. Fraser wrote the character in shades-of-gray. Regardless, it doesn’t provide a satisfactory viewing experience. The character forgets about looking for his friend as soon as they get to the location and becomes all about finding the gold. That can be fine, but the movie does not have enough runtime to flesh out the switch. The movie is 105 minutes long. It really needs to be around the 120 mark.
The Mancuso character is genuinely intruding on the Heston character’s claim. The Heston character has a legit reason to be annoyed. While a viewer may not be able to articulate what is wrong with this, they know something doesn’t ring true. They don’t find the conflict as fun as it could be because the conflict is not Bad Guy vs. Good Guy. It is Bad Guy vs. Provoking Guy.
The movie gets caught in loops. The characters retrace their steps a lot. They go talk to the Heston character, they go back to camp. They go talk to the Heston character, they go back to camp. They go into the mine, they go out of the mine. They go into the mine, they go out of the mine…
The genuine plane crash messed things up narratively. You see a lot of shots of the crashed plane submerged. Therefore, when the Mancuso character eventually discovers his friend’s submerged plane, it has no effect. We’ve seen a submerged plane ten times by that point. Less refined viewers might not even realize it’s his partner’s plane. They might think it’s another shot of Mancuso’s sunken plane.
Another problem develops because Mancuso’s discovery of his partner’s plane happens offscreen. This plot point should have been shown. Watching Mancuso search for and find the plane could have helped with his character development.
There is a subplot with a brother that doesn’t quite work. They were trying to develop a murder mystery, but it comes across as too much plot. On the other hand, maybe more runtime could have refined this concept and made it work.
The Basinger character is taken out of the movie for a bit. The Mancuso character believes she is dead, but the audience knows she is alive. It would have been more effective if the audience also believed she was dead. It would have made her clunky reappearance a surprise rather than clunky.
The Greek Chorus Guy keeps showing up and eliminating the feeling of isolation.
Toward the end of the movie, the Heston character needs the Mancuso character to help him get the gold. This development completely undercuts the whole conflict. If Heston needed help, why didn’t he welcome the couple with open arms as soon as they showed up? “So glad you are here! With you two popping in, we can get all of the gold before it’s too late!”
THERE’S PYRITE IN THEM THAR HILLS
That’s Mother Lode in a nutshell. It is frustratingly close to being a great little movie, complete with great production, awesome Heston, gold, claustrophobic mines, flying, diving, crashing, dynamiting, fighting, bagpipes…it’s all there, but they can’t quite close the deal.
I still watch this every now and again. There is enough onscreen to make me want to revisit it periodically. Great design, solid acting, nice hook and at least Mother Lode isn’t as homogenized as new movies. Nevertheless, ultimately the film is pyrite rather than gold. You can still make some neat jewelry with pyrite, but it’s not the same as the real thing.
Let’s go out on Heston’s best monologue in Mother Lode:
Why, mining, miss. That’s what it is, I believe, when a man crawls…in a hole before the sun comes up and shinnies down into the slime of the earth…and drills and blasts and picks and shovels his way through solid rock…in a tunnel hardly big enough to sit up in. And then hauls out three or four ton in a bucket…and climbs back up to the air after the sun goes down…having never seen the light of day. Yes, that is mining, is what it is.