The Big Sky

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 29, 2013

The Big Sky—Kirk Douglas, Dewey Martin, Elizabeth Threatt, Arthur Hunnicutt, Henri Letondal, Steven Geray, Buddy Baer, Hank Worden, Jim Davis (1952; Dir:  Howard Hawks)

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Underrated and slow-developing story of the voyage of the keelboat Mandan up the Missouri River in 1832 to trade with the Blackfoot Indians.  In other words, it’s a mountain man movie–the second best of that kind, after Jeremiah Johnson.  The guide and hunter for the expedition is Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt); his nephew Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) and Boone’s friend Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) learn their way in the unopened west as they go along.  Frenchie (Steven Geray), the head of the expedition, intends to bypass the usual fur company trade channels and go directly to trade with the Blackfeet at the headwaters of the Missouri, a trip of 2000 miles from St. Louis.  He is taking along non-English-speaking Teal Eye (half-Cherokee actress Elizabeth Threatt), a Blackfoot princess captured by the Crows and sold down the Missouri River, hoping she will facilitate trade with the otherwise hostile Blackfeet.  The expedition also acquires Poordevil (Hank Worden), an alcoholic Blackfoot who ends up being quite useful. 

BigSkyKeelboat Heading up the Big Muddy.

On the way upriver the Mandan is attacked by fur company minions led by Streak (Jim Davis) and by Crow allies of the fur company.  On the way Deakins and Caudill both develop relationships with Teal Eye, notwithstanding her initial hostility to Caudill and lack of English skills.  Aside from the conflicts with the fur company and Crows, the other questions are whether it will be Deakins or Caudill that Teal Eye will choose, and whether the one she chooses will stay with her or go back down the river. 

BigSky3 Boone, Zeb and Deakins.

The best actor in this film is Hunnicutt as mountain man Zeb Calloway, and he also provides the voice-over narration.  This may be his best role ever, and he is utterly convincing with period dialogue that could well seem highly artificial from another actor.  Kirk Douglas is the best-known of the stars today, and he is fine, playing the whole film with his hat pushed back on his head.  There are several reasons the film isn’t better-known today despite its top-of-the-line director and excellent quality.  Two of the leads, Threatt and Martin, didn’t have notable movie careers, although they are good here.  This was Threatt’s only film, and Martin had only a modest few good roles in the early 1950s before drifting into television work. 

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Elizabeth Threatt as Blackfoot maiden Teal Eye.  Douglas and director Hawks block out a fight scene.

Another is that the movie was not shot in widescreen or color at a time when westerns with any scope or ambition (Shane, Bend of the River) were mostly shot that way.  It was not particularly successful on its initial release.  A little slow-paced at its original 141 minutes, it was later edited down to 122 minutes by the studio, and it is difficult to find a decent print of the extended version these days.  That is what TCM shows, however, and the re-inserted material is of noticeably worse quality visually and in its sound.  It is in need of restoration and is not available on DVD currently (2013). 

This was an expensive production shot on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming–like Shane and Jubal.  Hawks was both director and producer.  Based on a classic novel by Montana author A.B. Guthrie, the screenplay was written by Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach et al.).  The music is by Dimitri Tiomkin.  The black-and-white cinematography by Russell Harlan and supporting actor Hunnicutt were both nominated for Academy Awards.  The novel is probably still stronger than this film.  If it had been made a few years earlier (at the time of Hawks’ Red River, say, when color and scale expections were smaller), the movie would probably be regarded as a classic.  It’s one of Hawks’ three best westerns.

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If you like Arthur Hunnicutt here, look for him in smaller roles in two other good westerns from 1950:  Broken Arrow and Two Flags West.  For other westerns based on novels by A.B. Guthrie, see The Way West, also with Kirk Douglas (1967), or the seldom-seen These Thousand Hills (1959).  This is better, though.

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