Tuesday, March 17, 2009
The Big Sky
The Big Sky was Howard Hawks' second Western after his iconic John Wayne/Montgomery Clift classic Red River, but this second stab at the genre is today largely forgotten, particularly in comparison to Hawks' other Westerns. Considered overlong by the producers and distributors of the time, it was chopped down by 20 minutes after its initial release, and it mostly survives today — on lousy bootlegged prints, when it's seen at all — in this shortened form. Even so, it's apparent that the film is much better than its reputation suggests; it's an ambling, nearly plotless adventure yarn in which a group of frontier men set off down the Missouri River into uncharted territory, aiming to be the first white men to get so far and trade with the notoriously unwelcoming Blackfoot Indians. The cuts made to the film to trim it down to an even two hours apparently haven't done much damage to Hawks' overall aesthetic, eliding some of the subtleties and details from certain scenes and relationships without drastically altering the shape or feel of the film.
From the beginning, Hawks is interested not so much in telling any particular story as evoking a time and a place and a type of man: the film harks back to the frontier spirit of early American history, when large swaths of unexplored land were waiting for intrepid men to penetrate them and discover their mysteries. It's surely no coincidence that one of these men, the aging adventurer and Indian trader Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt), calls the beautiful Blackfoot lands "wild and pretty like a virgin woman." Hawks has nothing but admiration for these men who are tied down to nothing and go running off caring only about the taste of adventure. There's a reason that the only period films Hawks was ever comfortable making were Westerns. This frontier spirit — the taming of wild country with sheer ingenuity, toughness and determined group effort — is perfectly suited to Hawks' cinematic sensibility. The film plays out like a blueprint for Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo: a journey up a choppy, hard-to-navigate river in which the men's physical exertions often literally push and pull the boat through the worst rapids. When the going gets too tough, the crew gets out and tugs the boat along the shore with heavy ropes.
Hawks films all of this with a raw physicality and intensity that captures the rigor of the journey in all its detail. He seems to care little for the actual plot, which is really nothing much to speak of anyway, just a loose framework on which to hang all the incidents and scenes that contribute to this vivid portrait of frontier life. Zeb and his French partner Jourdonnais (Steven Geray) have a plan to be the first men able to trade in Blackfoot country. They have a Blackfoot princess, Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt), who had been captured by a rival Indian tribe and then escaped, far from home. By returning Teal Eye to her people, the traders know they'll ingratiate themselves to the Blackfeet, thus finally opening up the standoffish tribe to outside trading. The only thing that stands in their way is the local fur company, which certainly doesn't want to see a group of independent operators open up this untouched territory. The narrative is simple: the boat struggles upriver, beset by attacks from the fur company's hired mercenaries and the local Crow Indians who've been stirred up onto the warpath.
In the midst of this adventure, Zeb takes on his young nephew Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) and Boone's friend Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas). The two young men are friends in a very Hawksian mold, harking all the way back to his early silent film A Girl in Every Port — Hawks cleverly tips his hat to the earlier film by repeating the bit of business where one of the men, after a fight, pulls the other's finger to pop his joint back into place. Hawks, often predictable in the kinds of stories he's drawn to and the things he finds interesting about them, makes this film about the camaraderie of these men as they head into danger, seemingly for no better reason than having something to do. When the film opens, Boone and Jim meet, fight each other and becomes friends in the process (again, like the heroes of A Girl in Every Port), then immediately set off looking for Boone's Uncle Zeb. When the three men meet up in jail, it's assumed that the two younger men will be coming along on Zeb's latest trip upriver. They all treat the journey like a lark, an excuse to have fun, and Hawks obviously has great fun himself in capturing the campfire bonhomie of the men.
There's an early, very Hawksian scene where Boone and Jim engage in a cheerfully drunken song with a French barmaid squeezed between them, the trio clustered together in the midst of a frame packed with activity and smiling, drunken faces. This cluttered, intimate atmosphere is carried over, once the journey gets under way, into campfire singalongs on the river bank and bull sessions where the men swap stories and pass whiskey jugs back and forth. Hawks even applies this cheery atmosphere to a scene in which Jim, after mangling his finger on a tree branch, has to have it amputated. The men get him good and liquored up, and Boone and Zeb, performing the surgery, get pretty tight themselves, just to be "sociable" with their injured friend. The whole thing becomes suddenly hilarious, the actual surgery performed offhandedly amidst the laughter and drunken camaraderie. Hawks had originally wanted to include a similar scene in Red River, until John Wayne balked at finding humor in something like that. It's obvious that Hawks, more than his actor, understood these kind of men, who wouldn't take a thing like that so seriously that they'd let it get in the way of a good time. The scene ends with an appropriately ridiculous image: most of the camp down on all fours, stumbling around looking for Jim's amputated finger, which somehow got lost in the confusion.
The film is packed with moments like this, and indeed it's structured around such moments. Its narrative simply wanders from scene to scene, taking its time studying the details while the boat meanders upstream towards Blackfoot country. The pacing is slow and deliberate, and the action minimal: there's an Indian skirmish and a pair of tense standoffs with the fur company's men, resolved with lightning-fast economy. Hawks doesn't care about telling a story so much as conveying the texture of the setting, the wild country and wide expanses of open sky that are impressive even in the disappointing prints that are the only way to see the film for now, until a definitive DVD is finally assembled. This disinterest in narrative structure only becomes distracting towards the end of the film, when the love triangle between Boone, Jim and Teal Eye, underplayed subtly throughout the film, abruptly becomes of central importance, with Hawks leaving it to Hunnicutt's folksy narration to fill in the details.
It doesn't help, either, that the central performances of Douglas and Martin are at best likable and slight. Neither actor was Hawks' first choice for this long-delayed project and there's not much energy or passion in their relationships with each other or with Teal Eye. The supporting performances, on the other hand, are uniformly colorful and entertaining, and Hunnicutt is especially great in the Walter Brennan-type old coot role. Zeb's outrageous tall tales and deadpan humor — reminiscent of the Squint character from Frank King's great newspaper comic strip Gasoline Alley — are consistently funny, especially his anecdote about sewing a friend's severed ear on backwards, so that whenever he heard something thereafter, he always turned in the wrong direction. Threatt, too, is compelling, even without a word of English dialogue in the entire film: she acts with her wide, flashing black eyes and the stubborn pride of her posture. The Big Sky is a loose, episodic film, driven by the accumulation of its incidents rather than the meager forward drive of its narrative. It's a true Hawksian Western, a celebration of man's taming of wild nature and the bonds between men that make such grand adventures possible.