Saturday 21 July 2012

1,001 Films: "The Big Sky" (1952)

Adapted by Dudley Nichols from a novel by J.B. Guthrie Jr., The Big Sky tweaks the blueprint for director Howard Hawks's output in a way that would affect the later Rio Bravo and El Dorado: while it takes as its subject a group of men (and one token woman) under pressure - a staple of Hawks's work from Only Angels Have Wings onwards - and while it initially sets up a hierarchy between a man's man and an impetuous boy who needs to be blooded (not to mention the grizzled oldtimer who shows the man's man he still has much to learn), the film finally insists on the parity of friendship and shared experience, drawing as it does upon the story of Lewis and Clark. Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin are the mountain men who fall in with a crew of Frenchies; the latter are sailing for the very first time up the Missouri from St. Louis to Montana, in order to trade (illegally) with the native Indians. Also on board is Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt), one of the natives' daughters, intended to smooth the crew's passage into Injun territory.

The Boys' Own action-adventure stuff - all done for real: the boat tipping over, a hunting party catapulting fresh meat from the hillside - is still stirring, though Hawks's real interest lies in the company these men keep, and the sparky banter they keep up, once installed around the campfire. You could warm your hands and cockles on the democratic sentiments being expressed here: the arguments in favour of free trade (and equality for the natives) receive a full and substantial airing, the heroism and courage of these trailblazers is resolutely played down, catchphrases ("Sic 'em, Boone", "Well, I'll be dogged") rise up out of the flames, and even the amputation of Kirk's finger gets spun out into an amusingly boozy set-piece. Less significant, perhaps, than this director's later oaters - the supporting cast is solid, rather than outstanding - it remains a most convivial entertainment, with a welcome shot of mythic poetry in its final moments.

The Big Sky is available on DVD through Odeon Entertainment.

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