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.


Anonymous said...

This is truly a stunning treatment of THE BIG SKY, a film that I am sorry to admit I never have seen, even if it's one of the few Hawks I haven't negotiated. It's interesting to note that you downplay the importance of a linear plot, in proper deference of the more vital concerns of "incidents and scenes that contribute to a vivid portrait of frontier life." It's ironic that I haven't watched the film, despite being the happy owner of Dimitri Tiomkin's magnificent Brigham Young CD score CD, which showcases some of the master composer's best music. Shame on me for not getting around to the film, I have no excuses.
I love the suggestion that the film "plays out as a blueprint for Herzog's FITZCARALDO," a film that is a bonafide masterwork. Of a number of illustrative passages placing THE BIG SKY in it's proper context I point to these two:

"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."

"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."

Your high praise for the performances is well-noted.

As always thanks very much for this super exhaustive and enriching treatment that leaves no stone unturned in fecund fashion.

Richard Bellamy said...

This film is too slow for me - and I have to admit I'm not a big fan of Howard Hawks. I feel that in comparison with the novel, which I love, which is gripping and epic and physical, the movie doesn't amount to much.

I can see what Hawks is doing. I can see the development of characters and relationships, which he also does in Rio Bravo, for example, but I feel it is at the expense of suspense and drama. Rio Bravo is one of my least favorite John Wayne Westerns. I love Red River, however.

Still, I really enjoy your posts on Westerns, and other old movies. I just finished The Tall T, which I loved and commented on on your post. I also watched Decision at Sundown - my least favorite of the Boetticher 5-pack. Next will be 7 Men from Now, which I saw long ago. Your posts have gotten me on a Western kick - so then I will watch one of my favorites: Yellow Sky with Peck. Ever see it? Have also ordered The Cimarron Kid - which I saw when I was a kid; loved the shootout involving the train turntable - but since then forgot where I had seen that. Thanks for the post that found the source of that long-lost memory for me.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Sam, I highly recommend tracking this film down.

Hokahey, I obviously hold Hawks in much higher regard than you do -- I count him among the best few directors of the classical Hollywood era. I love the leisurely pace and casual treatment of plot in his films, and I love how he defuses the potential for (melo)drama inherent in so many of the stories he tells. His work strikes me as one of the great humanist oeuvres in Hollywood, a prolonged study of the ways people form relationships with others and with their world.

I'm glad I've triggered a resurgence of your interest in Westerns; it's a genre I hold close to my heart as well. I haven't seen Yellow Sky though it's been on my radar for ages. Your recommendation obviously pushes it higher up in the queue. The Cimarron Kid is great fun, and it comes in a 4-movie pack from Universal with another fine Boetticher Western (Man From the Alamo) and a pair of other minor Westerns. I'm also agreed about your general impressions of Boetticher; Decision at Sundown is one of his weakest, though still interesting in its own right. 7 Men From Now is thematically similar to the other films but, to me, not quite as formally interesting. It's been quite a while since I've seen it, though, so I might like it more if I revisited it now that I'm more familiar with Boetticher as a whole.

Richard Bellamy said...

Actually, I just finished 7 Men From Now - coincidentally after seeing it in the top 10 of a Top 100 Westerns list, and I have to say that's overrating it highly. I enjoyed it, especially Lee Marvin's stylistic warm-up for his roles as the bad guys in The Comancheros and Liberty Valance, but not nearly as much as the very tightly constructed, visually stunning Comanche Station, The Tall T, and Ride Lonesome.

I encourage you to check out Yellow Sky - in black-and-white the Alabama Hills are even more amazing! Also, get a hold of Garden of Evil.

Damian said...

This movie has been a classic that I was raised watching. My family has used excerpts from this movie as long as I can remember... the whistle used when they were in the dinghy going to meet the Mandan in the fog is something that triggers many childhood memories. The Big Sky is an all around classic that I will never get tired of watching. I had a copy of it on VHS that quit working from watching it so much, does anyone have any reccomendations to where I can find this movie on DVD?

Ed Howard said...

Damian, I agree it's a great film. Unfortunately, it is not available on DVD at all, and only available on DVD in a cut version rather than Hawks' original cut. I don't know why this fantastic classic is so thoroughly forgotten and obscure.

nem baj said...

Actually, there is a PAL R2 DVD of The Big Sky that can be bought from France (under the localised title 'La Captive aux yeux clairs' at Éditions Montparnasse), and even a box set 'coffret collector' including the uncut version, which is 12 minutes longer. Beware, though : the copy of the cut scenes is in bad shape.

The script decidedly avoids the darkness of the novel to focus on the male friendship, the scenery and the journey - but in my opinion it does that incredibly well, though not in the toughest hawksian way. Indeed there's no scary villain to beat here (the Missouri itself is no match for the weather and mountains of Only Angels Have Wings), and the woman doesn't quite spark the rivalry of the two men as much as other Hawks heroins do.

But then, there is a kind of quiet lyricism about this celebration of making friends, singing, hunting, travelling, drinking and enjoying nature. Although one might think consider this to be quite boyish and naive, violence and pain are far from absent from the movie - but they are dealt with the Hawks way, without drama nor fascination. People get killed, fingers are lost: c'est la vie. The Big Sky is an ode to pleasures as simple as they have become scarce. And a great movie for all ages.

Ed Howard said...

Whoa, thanks for the info on the R2 DVD. I'm curious to see what the deleted scenes are like, even if they are in bad shape.

Totally agreed on the film itself. There's no grand drama and the film is kind of slack in narrative terms, but the celebration of friendship and laidback adventure is really charming and enjoyable.

nem baj said...

You're welcome. Since Rivette, the French actually worship Hawks...

One thing I forgot : The Big Sky is also a Bildungsroman, a formation journey for young Boone Caudell - he will learn to control his impulses, become a team player, value friendship over rivalry, and eventualy let go his hatred for Native Americans by living among them. This is a classic Hawks 'man from boy' narrative (maybe not as powerful as it could have been since, in my opinion, Kirk Douglas and Arthur Hunnicut steal the show from Dewey Martin).

Adam Zanzie said...

Ed, this movie is in my school library on VHS, so I watched it last weekend. And... I think it might actually be my favorite Howard Hawks movie. Yes, above The Big Sleep. And above Rio Bravo and Only Angels Have Wings. All fine films. But I find myself strangely drawn to this one.

I think part of it has to do with the setting. This is just a terrific movie about the great outdoors, and this particular Missourian responds to it enormously well. It's true, it doesn't have a strong story, but it has enough of a flowing narrative (fur-trappers on a river journey to return an Indian princess to her tribe) to keep me confidant enough to remain in the company of these characters for a good 2 hours. It's Hawksian camaraderie of a different color because these guys aren't gangsters or cowboys. They're Midwestern outdoorsmen.

I'm one of those on-again, off-again Hawks fans, who sometimes struggles with his work when it feels too redundant (it's hard to tell El Dorado and Rio Lobo apart, for example, although I remember El Dorado being a much better film) or weak on narrative, which is a problem I had with To Have and Have Not and even Hatari! (which did, of course, have a notable visual influence on the Jurassic Park movies but was still difficult for me to sit through). But I take a real exception to The Big Sky. It's not like with Land of the Pharaohs, where it has some great sequences but you can still see why it's never talked about today. For I'd argue The Big Sky IS absolutely one of Hawks' best, and is ripe for rediscovery. Does Todd McCarthy have any nice things to say about it in his Hawks book? I haven't read his book in a year, and might just buy a copy for the hell of it, but I do hope he likes this one.

This is a film I plan on watching probably at least 2 or 3 more times, but I will say that I knew the movie had me from the moment that one campfire scene came up. It's the scene where Kirk Douglas and Arthur Hunnicutt are having a conversation about some woman, and Hunnicutt asks, "Pretty?" to which Douglas softly confirms, "Pretty." And then that moment when Dewey Martin's character walks up to the sleeping Indian princess and pulls aside her blanket -- to see if she's pretty -- I mean, wow. That, right there, is Hawks at his most subtle and intuitive. There might even be other moments just like that in the movie that I've forgotten, which is why I'm eager to watch it again!

Ed Howard said...

Glad you liked this one so much, Adam. It's not one of my personal favorites - I think both El Dorado and Hatari, which you're ambivalent about, are better examples of this kind of laidback Hawksian buddy movie - but it's still really good and the atmosphere is pretty much perfect. I'd agree it's ripe for rediscovery, for sure, it's probably only availability that's holding it back.

McCarthy seems to mostly like it, though like me he doesn't think the leads are that strong. That lack of compelling central performances is probably the main thing holding it back - as relaxed and ambling as the later Hawks/Wayne Westerns are, they're anchored by all the strong presences in the films, from Wayne to Mitchum to Dickinson and everyone else.