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A difficult shoot, a broken marriage and behind-the-scenes battles make up the story of MGM's Western Across the Wide Missouri (1951). Much as with another epic made that year, John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage (1951), Across the Wide Missouri was taken away from its director in an attempt to broaden its commercial appeal for audiences of its day.
To begin with, the source material was unusual. Bernard De Voto's book Across the Wide Missouri (1947) was not a novel but a lengthy and detailed historical study of the American fur trade from 1832 to 1838. When it became a surprise bestseller, MGM bought the book and threw away everything but the title and the concept of fur traders in the old West.
Screenwriter Talbot Jennings, with the help of Frank Cavett, devised an original story about trapper Flint Mitchell (Clark Gable) who marries a woman from the Blackfoot tribe (Maria Elena Marques) hoping to gain entry to their lands. This mercenary marriage evolves into a deeper love once his pregnant wife leads him over the mountains to her tribe's village.
William A. Wellman, director of such classics as The Public Enemy (1931) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), took on the project at the last minute. He imposed one condition: "I agreed, provided that they included all my family from the moment they left the house until they returned...This was an expensive agreement, for most of the picture was to be made on location at Durango, Colorado."
Taking along the family hardly seemed a trial at all compared with hauling a giant Hollywood production ten thousand feet up into the Rockies. As Wellman recalled, "For one sequence, we went in the way the trappers did, hacking a path with axes. Cables, lights and the Technicolor camera were packed in on muleback."
Wellman, Clark Gable and most of the cast adapted well to the rugged outdoor locations, but not so Gable's new wife, Lady Sylvia Ashley. She tried to introduce typical English country life to the cabin where she was staying with Gable, earning the derision of the crew by putting up "frilly curtains" and having their temporary shelter landscaped with trees, grass and a garden. She later provoked more embarrassment when she refused to eat with the crew outdoors because sunlight harmed her skin. Friends later said tensions between Gable and Lady Ashley on this trip brought his fourth marriage to an end.
When it was all over, Wellman delivered a picture that was a study of a white man coming to terms with the Native American world, more character-driven than action-packed. Preview audiences, not given what they expected, squirmed, so MGM boss Dore Schary chopped the movie down to its present 78 minutes and added a narration by Howard Keel. In spite of or perhaps due to the cutting, reviews were mixed and Wellman disowned the film. "I've never seen it and I never will."
Across the Wide Missouri, even in its truncated form, still remains a ravishing movie, filled with breathtaking Technicolor views of America's western wilderness. Fans of William Wellman's work can appreciate the look of the film while pondering how the director's original version might have played.
Director: William A. Wellman
Producer: Robert Sisk
Writer: Talbot Jennings, from a story by Jennings and Frank Cavett, inspired by the book by Bernard DeVoto
Cinematographer: William Mellor
Art Director: James Basevi, Cedric Gibbons
Editor: John Dunning
Music: David Raksin
Cast: Clark Gable (Flint Mitchell), Ricardo Montalban (Ironshirt), John Hodiak (Brecan), Adolphe Menjou (Pierre), Maria Elena Marques (Kamiah), Howard Keel (Narrator).
C-79m. Closed captioning.
by Brian Cady