The Big Sky, 1952
Dir: Howard Hawks
January 18, 2010
I'm skipping a couple of Hawks films in between Red River (1948) and this for a few reasons, but mostly because they are comedies which are probably super screwy. Another is that this is a Western, and can actually correlate somewhat to that review. I might do one of those combined reviews for the others, maybe not. I'll have to see if I can stomach the first one. The Big Sky is a frontier Western, focusing more on the Pacific Northwest, particularly in what I assume is Montana ("Big Sky Country"). I have a lot of half-formed logic in my reviews, and to say something like "I hate Kurt Douglas because he just pisses me off" might appear, or maybe it already has. There is no real logic behind it; it's just sort of instinctual. I seriously did not think he could act well. As Jim Deakins, a man heading West who gets involved with frontiersmen and Indian traders, Douglas slips right into the Hawksian bravura and risk taking ballsyness that blew my hair back during another great Hawks film, Only Angels Have Wings (1939). I think that most of it has to with The Big Sky being an ensemble piece, and Douglas' part doesn't demand the screen time which might make you groan or get a Douglas overload. And at the end, Douglas doesn't get what he gets in almost every other film he is in. To say the least, I was flabbergasted.
I think that I like this more than Red River because it actually feels like a Howard Hawks film, while also being a pretty good Western. This is a rousing, good-time adventure tale with two Hawksian buddies making their way through the untamed wild. Deakins meets Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) in the wilderness, and right away, Boone punches Jim in the face twice because he thinks that Jim is "following him." The are so many of these strange outbursts of violence and manliness throughout the film, and they pretty much sum up Hawks' feelings on untamable masculinity, which of course is why they are in such an untamable place. From there they go on to meet up with Boone's uncle Zeb (Arthur Hunnicutt) in St. Louis, who tells them about a plan to go trade with the elusive Blackfoot Indians somewhere up the Missouri River. That's all that you really need to know about the plot, besides the fact that the traveling party also has a Blackfoot princess (Elizabeth Threatt) as a little insurance.
Of course, both of the buddies fall for her, even though the true relationship of the film is obviously the one they have with each other. At the same time, the greedy, evil owners of a fur company try everything to stop them, but Hawks presents all this in relaxed episodes rather than a constantly thrusting plot. It's a fleshed out tale that relies on it's characters, rather than the plot. To that end, Douglas is always smiling, despite the fact that he's constantly getting wounded and injured. In one scene, he has his finger amputated, but the mood is comical. Martin's character is interesting in that he's a loose cannon ("Sick 'em, Boone!") and a racist ("What you do that for?" "Nothin'. I just hate Injuns.") seething with hate, and yet is starting to realize that he's never going to be able to survive in the wilderness unless he turns into something closer to his uncle, a true frontiersman who can communicate with the Indians and even sympathize with them. And of course there is Teal Eye, the princess, who he is starting to warm up to despite the friction that exists between them (and the language barrier).
The one part of the film that is sort of bizarre is the message that Hawks is trying to tell about the vast wilderness itself. Hawks luxuriates in a kind of utopian vision of unspoiled America, and the rich, black-and-white cinematography by Russell Harlan received an Oscar nomination. I doubt that Hawks really thought about the impact White expansion had on Indians and the "Land" in depth, but there are definitely a few lines in the film that meditate on the future that Indians will have in America and also a few that are sympathetic towards the reasons behind their hostile actions. At the same time, there is also a ton of racist stuff that borders on comical instead of just trying to "tell it like it was." I think my favorite of these has to be Poor Devil (Hank Worden), the retarded Blackfoot drunk who the party meets a little ways up the Missouri. He is an embarrassment to Teal Eye in that he is always demanding whiskey and is known to be a "little touched in the head." A little bit of modern prejudice slipping in? Probably. Poor Devil will make you laugh though you probably know you aren't supposed to nowadays. The yuks were pretty intentional in the 50s.
This is most certainly not a typical Plains Western, but it is a Hawks film, and it should be good enough for anyone who enjoys French fur trappers, the Frontier, or classic American cinema.