“…I’ll take you there, but…there’s no gold”
By 1969, the year that Mackenna’s Gold was released to theaters, the voracious appetite for westerns that had characterized much of the movie-going and television-watching public up until the early 1960s had pretty well disappeared. The western landscape now was dotted only by a number of European-made westerns spawned by the success of the Clint Eastwood man-with-no-name trilogy in the mid-60s; modest American A titles peopled by the likes of an aging John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, or western wannabe Dean Martin; and occasional “event” westerns that strove to stand out above the rest by dint of superior script, or unexpected acting quality, or simple elegance and realism. Films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit, and The Wild Bunch all were superior “event” westerns in 1969. Mackenna’s Gold, despite an apparent winning combination of cast, crew, and location, was the flip side of the coin — the event that proved to be little or no event at all.
Columbia TriStar Home Video has released Mackenna’s Gold on DVD as part of their Western Classics series. The DVD is a good improvement over Columbia’s previous widescreen LD, which sported a very nice image, but had disappointing sound.
Mackenna’s Gold has a number of things going for it, at least at first glance. The cast sounds like a winner, with Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif starring, Keenan Wynn and Telly Savalas among others supporting, and quite a raft of cameos from the likes of Edward G. Robinson, Raymond Massey, Lee J. Cobb, Burgess Meredith, and Anthony Quayle. Narration is supplied effectively by the distinctive voice of Victor Jory. There are many veteran, reliable western performers in this bunch. The direction looks promising too, with J. Lee Thompson in charge. Thompson certainly had no western experience, but he had showed his capability with action material in The Guns of Navarone (1961) and with suspense in Cape Fear (1962), both incidentally with Gregory Peck. The look of the film should be spectacular, given the extensive scouting of sites throughout the west prior to filming. The final shooting locations — ranging from Canyon de Chelly and Marble Canyon in Arizona to Kanab, Utah and Grant’s Pass, Oregon — all offer wonderful western vistas. Finally, the production and writing pedigrees are pretty impressive too. Carl Foreman was co-producer (with Dimitri Tiomkin) as well as writer of the screenplay. He had previously scripted High Noon (1952) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and had both produced and scripted The Guns of Navarone.
The script that utilizes these various components to tell the story that is Mackenna’s Gold is fairly simple. Gregory Peck is Mackenna, a marshal from Hadleyburg who has destroyed (having first committed to memory) a map that purports to lead to a lost canyon of gold, sacred to the Apache Indians. He doesn’t believe the map to be real, but others do. Those others make him a captive and force him to lead them to the canyon’s location. Among the gold seekers are a Mexican bandit played by Omar Sharif, his gang and a woman they have taken prisoner, and a number of townspeople from Hadleyburg. A troop of cavalry is also involved in the chase. The denouement of the story is played out in the lost canyon.
Columbia has done a commendable job with its DVD of Mackenna’s Gold, maintaining the high standards of previous titles in its Western Classics series, such as The Man from Laramie (1955) and The Professionals (1966). The image is clear and crisp with very good shadow detail and the western canyon locations, particularly, look simply breathtaking. The source material is not pristine for there are a few speckles from time to time — more so during the first 10 minutes than after — but nothing to detract in any substantial way from one’s enjoyment of the image. Columbia presents both a widescreen version, enhanced for 16:9 televisions, which preserves the 2.35:1 original aspect ratio as well as a full screen version. The latter is completely useless for it completely negates the wonderful framing of the western scenery.
Two English soundtracks are available — stereo and a new Dolby Digital 5.0 mix. The new mix is wonderfully enveloping with bullets ricocheting and voices echoing around in the cavernous locations when appropriate.
The DVD includes rather modest talent files on Thompson, Peck, Sharif and Savalas; two theatrical trailers, for The Guns of Navarone and Lawrence of Arabia, but interestingly, not for Mackenna’s Gold; a still frame of the original theatrical poster; and subtitles in six languages. An informative pamphlet with two pages of production notes accompanies the DVD.
One wants to like Mackenna’s Gold. But unfortunately the whole is much, much less than the sum of the parts. The main problem is a script that completely wastes a fine cast. For example, it introduces characters such as the men from Hadleyburg, played as cameos by the likes of Edward G. Robinson, Raymond Massey, and Lee J. Cobb, but then proceeds first to portray them as stereotypes — such as Massey’s riff on the evangelistic preacher which harks back to his John Brown portrayal in 1940’s Santa Fe Trail — and then dispatches them all with almost ridiculous speed and ease. What of the cavalry that seems to appear and disappear with little rhyme or reason? Or what about having your two main characters climb the seemingly impossible vertical cliff of a box canyon near the end of the film, fight on a ledge halfway up to no apparent result, and then both climb back down?
Among the performances of the main cast members, Gregory Peck comes off best. He’s virtually always believable in western roles. There’s a presence and command about Peck that perhaps only lagged Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott in conveying a convincing westerner. His work in Mackenna’s Gold is no exception. Otherwise, there’s only disappointment, from Omar Sharif’s ludicrous Mexican Bandit to the waste of Keenan Wynn (whose main dialogue seems to consist of a series of grunts or hyena laughs) and Telly Savalas (whose most interesting action is to cut his scalp as he shaves it). Camilla Sparv (has anyone ever heard of her before or since?) is a complete zero as the captive girl. She conveys nothing — neither intelligence nor sexuality nor girl-next-door niceness.
Then there’s the direction of J. Lee Thompson. For the most part, his efforts are workmanlike. The action sequences are fine — compelling enough, but nothing more. At some point, however, he decided it would be a good idea to present a few sequences as POV shots, such as what Peck sees while tied to a horse’s back or while being dragged on the ground behind an Indian’s horse. The abrupt cuts to these POV shots just don’t work. They’re jarring and the sequences feel unrealistic rather than giving the you-are-there feel that must have been intended.
There’s also a fair number of special effect opportunities incorporated in the story. Too bad, for the resulting special effects are embarrassingly unconvincing — including in one case, a major earthquake and in another, the crossing of a rope-bridge suspended over a deep chasm.
This is a tough one. Columbia’s presented us with a very nice looking and sounding DVD. The supplemental material is nothing to write home about, but after all the film’s the thing and Columbia’s got the presentation part of it very right. If only the film content merited the effort! Sadly, it doesn’t. Mackenna’s Gold is basically a waste of a good cast, great locations and a competent director.