Wednesday, January 14, 2015


FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*

For my ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE blog I wrote the following after reading the famed western novel RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE: recent reading of an avowed prose western classic, Zane Grey's 1912 RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE, gives me an example of how westerns more often than not use tropes with uncanny potential in a thoroughly naturalistic manner

PURPLE SAGE uses two major tropes in a naturalistic manner: a "masked rider" and a "mysterious valley." However, if one wanted to see how the bracing Western wildernesses of Utah and Oregon could take on an uncanny phenomenality, few films have done so better than J. Lee Thompson's MACKENNA'S GOLD. This is, I should note, yet another "uncanny film" that appears in few fantasy-film concordances even though GOLD creates a mood of mystery and forboding superior to many dime-a-dozen "spooky thrillers."

That's not to say that the Thompson film doesn't have its share of problems. This was Thompson's third collaboration with major Hollywood star Gregory Peck, following the WWII multi-star blockbuster THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961) and the edgy thriller CAPE FEAR (1962). However, whereas the multi-star approach was justified with NAVARONE, Thompson and his producers reaped uneven benefits when they chose to pursue the same path with MACKENNA'S GOLD. I have not read the source novel, but the GOLD script is far too thin and hackneyed to justify the presence of the many stars brought on board, some of whom may not even be on screen for twenty minutes, including Edward G. Robinson, Lee J. Cobb, Anthony Quayle, Burgess Meredith, and Raymond Massey.

Even the main characters don't resonate very deeply. Within the first half of the film, the audience learns only bits and pieces about the titular hero, U.S. Marshal Mackenna (Peck). We learn that:
 (1) Mackenna used to be a gold-prospector, (2) that he somehow made the acquaintance of a federal judge, who appointed Mackenna a marshal over the objections of the citizens of nearby city Hadleyburg, (3) that Mackenna once had a love affair with Apache Amazon Hesh-Ke (Julie Newmar), one that ended after he arrested her brother and turned him over the hangman, and (4) he used to be friends with bandit leader Colorado (Omar Sharif).

The key conflict is between Mackenna and Colorado, set up by two parallel incidents. Mackenna, riding along minding his own business, is shot at by an old Indian, Prairie Dog. Prairie Dog,on the verge of death, spins a familiar tale of the fabulous gold-filled "Canon del Oro," with one difference: Prairie Dog has a map to the famed canyon. The Indian complains that the canyon is no longer holy to the younger Apache, and then dies. Though Mackenna evinces no belief in the legend, he memorizes the map and then burns it.

Roughly around the same time, Colorado and his gang-- which includes the aforementioned Hesh-Ke-- break into a small ranch, looking for provisions. The bandits kill the ranch's owner, who happens to be the same judge that made Mackenna a marshal and also put out a reward for Colorado's head. The gang also takes captive the judge's daughter Inga (Camilla Sparv), without knowing the identity of her father. This will provide a minor subplot when Colorado takes Mackenna prisoner as well, and Mackenna must endeavor to keep his former friend from learning Inga's identity-- though this is a subplot with no pay-off, since nothing happens when Colorado does find out the truth.

Many have criticized MACKENNA'S GOLD for its cumbersome length. This is a consequence of Thompson and his scripters trying to inject thrills (Apache chases, a river-rafting episode) to cover the fact that nothing much can change until the bandits and their captives arrive at the fabled canyon. The sequences are well done in and of themselves, but they don't add much to the repetitive theme: money/gold is the root of all evil, etc. There's a little sexitude thrown in as Hesh-Ke becomes jealous of Mackenna's attentions toward Inga, but this too isn't really settled until the climactic sequence, and not very satisfactorily.

The good part of GOLD is that the script does create a mythic feel for the Canon del Oro. The canyon is a place of taboo to traditional Apaches, though some of the younger Indians, influenced by the white man's corruption, have begun seeking the canyon's gold for pure gain. The canyon is merged with the "Lost Adams Mine" of American western folklore, and whoever Adams was in those stories, here he's the only white man who beheld the golden fields and lived, though the Apaches made him a sort of holy pariah by blinding him. Adams himself shows up as one of the throwaway guest-stars. played effectively by Edward G. Robinson, and in some ways he's symbolically homologous with Prairie Dog, who passes the secret of the canyon on to Mackenna-- though, considering all the trouble this makes for the marshal, the Indian's gift is almost as deadly as his initial attempt to shoot Mackenna.

The entrance to the valley is marked by a natural obelisk called "Shaking Rock," whose name sets up the story for a conclusion strongly influenced by the ending of RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE. The mood of the uncanny is further enhanced when the sun, flashing off quartz deposits, guides the gold-seekers into the canyon. It's a perilous entrance, and Hesh-Ke loses her life when she tries to murder Inga. Later, when the remaining searchers find their bonanza, they're still in danger, for one of Colorado's Indians (Ted Cassidy) turns on his boss, claiming that the ancient spirits have told him to kill all the trespassers.

It's not surprising that Mackenna and Inga survive the great cataclysm that buries the canyon for all time, but I for one would have found the ending stronger had Colorado bought the farm along with all those who followed him. The film-script strains to make the continuing dance of bandit and lawman seem jovial in tone, but this seems at odds with the "root of all evil" preachments. I suspect Colorado got to live in order to keep from offending the fans of Omar Sharif-- though as it happened, Sharif's days as a major star would not endure past the 1970s.

I'm sure MACKENNA'S GOLD will never be remade, but its story would have made a cracking good ninety-minute western along the lines of 1948's YELLOW SKY. But then, a shorter western might've given the Canon del Oro shorter shrift, and it wouldn't have been much more memorable than the Whistling Skull from this 1937 B-western.

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