Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Big Sky

The Big Sky (Howard Hawks, 1952) A.B. Guthrie's novel about the exploration (and decimation) of the West by Eastern immigre's is considerably shortened by Hawks and Dudley Nichols, who start at the meeting of Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) and Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) and their adventures of a keelboat going up the Missouri and leave it at that. Nothing about how Boone's a little savage who ran away from home after nearly killing his father, nothing about the unpleasantness that would follow, or the results of Boone's bad temper. No, this one's pretty much good times with some rough waters and bad rivals, and everybody gets along famously. It's vintage Hawks, but it ain't Guthrie. In fact, Hawks eliminates the one character in Guthrie's trilogy ("The Big Sky", "The Way West", "Fair Land, Fair Land") who endure throughout—trapper and guide Dick Summers.

Re-writing is nothing new to Hawks (as a work habit, he'd re-write the next day's script the night before just to keep things fresh, sometimes abandoning the plot altogether if he thought it wasn't going in the right direction).  His great western, Red River, was completed four years previously, he followed it up with a musical remake of his own Ball of Fire with Danny Kaye, gone overseas with Cary Grant to make I Was a Male War Bride, then made his first foray into science fiction (but very much in the Hawks tradition of team-building) with The Thing (From Another World).  The Big Sky is different—the 50's would be something of an experimental phase for Hawks, going deeper into his subjects and philosophies than previously—in that cowboys and cattle aren't the prime motivation. Fur trading is. And to do that, you don't go by horse, you go by boat and the challenges there are far different and maybe a bit more challenging than crossing the plains.  You go where the water goes and it's never a straight line and there are obstacles around every turn.

Guthrie's story is a bit like the Lewis and Clarke expedition (without the government funding), and both versions for page and film borrow the story of Sacagawea from the Corps of Discovery, whose presence (by coincidence) made acquiring ponies for the rugged trek across the Rocky Mountains from the Shoshones a foregone conclusion. This came about as, unbeknownst to the Corps, Sacagawea had been stolen from the Shoshones as a child and her translating skills brought her face to face with the standing chief...who happened to be her brother. In the same way, the character of "Teal Eye" (played by Elizabeth Threatt, in her only film) is brought back to her tribe to help in the fur negotiations. She also serves as a point of rivalry between Dawkins and Caudill, but it all gets resolved to everybody's satisfaction.  
It fits into the Hawks template of disparate groups coming together for a single purpose: Hawkins finds Caudill, they're looking for Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt, nominated for an Oscar for this performance, and he'd be playing, basically, the same role in Hawks' 67' Western El Dorado), who they meet in jail (problem solved, efficiently), then once Zeb is bailed out by the keel-boat Captain "Frenchy" (Steven Geray, and we don't know if he's related to "Frenchy" in To Have and Have Not), and the adventure meanders, like a river, with some tributaries involving a rival fur trading company, Deakins' ability to get hurt (and heal rapidly, apparently, and at one point, Hawks makes a comic episode out of amputating one of the character's fingers!). He isn't nearly as concerned with ethnic authenticity as John Ford—he does use Ford's Hank Worden as a Shoshone guide as comic relief, but at least he's competent comic relief.
There have been a couple versions of this one floating around, and because it was done for RKO late in its life, and been passed from studio to studio, it's in fairly ragged shape. Russell Harlan's black-and-white cinematography was nominated for an Oscar, but it's a little dim to see why, given the shape the film is in, even the "complete" version that TCM is running on. It needs a major restoration, which is hard to come by if the film is in the second row seating of a director's Hall of Fame.
Perhaps one day, maybe, when someone mounts a Kirk Douglas retrospective, or decides to a DVD release of it, at all.

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