powered by AFI
Planned by Columbia Pictures and producer/writer Carl Foreman as an all-star western extravaganza, to be shot in 70mm Super Panavision and slated to run an epic three hours, Mackenna's Gold (1969) was reeled in by the nervous studio, cut down at the last minute to just over two hours, and exhibited mostly in standard 35mm widescreen. Costing a then-estimable $14,000,000, the film was savaged by the critics and ignored by moviegoers, who returned a feeble $3 million of Columbia's investment. "A western of truly stunning absurdity," squawked New York Times critic Vincent Canby on New Year's Day 1969, while Brian Garfield (author of Western Films: A Critical Guide and, incidentally, the source novel for Michael Winner's Death Wish ) declared Mackenna's Gold "the most expensive star-studded two hour B movie ever made, a gargantuan dud of absolutely stunning dreadfulness." The critic for Variety was a dissenting voice but the superlatives tendered ("standard... good... adequate") were faint praise indeed. Perhaps the cruelest blow came from star Gregory Peck, who opined that "Mackenna's Gold was a terrible western. Just wretched."
At the distance of forty years, Mackenna's Gold looks better now than when it went up against the likes of Henry Hathaway's True Grit (1969), Tom Gries' Will Penny (1968), Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) and various other revisionist westerns made toward the end of the 1960s. If the film works nowadays purely on the level of sixgun kitsch, that's not to say the filmmakers weren't in on the joke back in 1968. The combination of stunning, anamorphic widescreen grandeur (captured in four different western states) with obvious studio sets, the casting of obvious Caucasian actors (among them Julie Newmar, TV's Catwoman) in Native American roles, the employment of blue-eyed Keenan Wynn as a Mexican rudo and an underwater three-way knife fight at the film's midsection that stops the action cold for sheer jaw dropping disbelief like the ballet interlude in Oklahoma! (1955) all point to an authorial puckishness on the part of Foreman and his director of choice, J. Lee Thompson. Preoccupied as he likely was with trekking from location to location, Gregory Peck seems to have missed the joke, which makes the gag even funnier.
To see it his way, Peck was at the time in a career slump after winning an Academy Award® for the defining role of his career in Robert Mulligan's To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). While several of the actor's subsequent films did well enough at the box office, and a subset of these found favor with a scattering of critics, few of his fans could be expected to distinguish between the dully-titled likes of Mirage (1965), Arabesque (1966), The Chairman (1969) or Marooned (1969). Peck appeared in no films at all between 1966 and the start of 1969, applying his energies instead to political and humanitarian efforts. After scheduling conflicts cost him the lead in Ice Station Zebra (1968), Peck returned to the big screen in four films, shot back to back. In the moody The Stalking Moon, directed by Robert Mulligan, Peck played a retired Army scout who protects traumatized settler Eva Marie Saint against the ruthless renegade who has fathered her child. Peck saddled up again for Mackenna's Gold, as a lawman who reluctantly joins a gang of desperadoes in search of a legendary cache of Apache gold.
Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood had turned down the title role in Mackenna's Gold. Peck also pushed the script away but was persuaded to reconsider by J. Lee Thompson, his director on The Guns of Navarone (1961). Peck remained vocal in his misgivings about the sideshow aspect of the super-production, whose supporting cast swelled to include Omar Sharif, Telly Savalas, Edward G. Robinson, Eli Wallach, Lee J. Cobb, Burgess Meredith, and Raymond Massey. "I'm always put off by the so-called all-star cast," Peck went on-record as saying. "Producers aim to buy their way into public favor by overpaying stars and featuring important players in small roles." If shooting in distant locations in Utah, Arizona and Oregon proved tedious, Peck found solace in the company of Edward G. Robinson, with whom he could discuss acting, politics, religion and the fine arts. (Robinson was known throughout his life and long career to own a world class art collection.) In an interview conducted after the completion of principal photography, Peck heralded Robinson (who died in 1973) as "darling, funny, warm, actorish, a bit theatrical relatively guileless, a bit like a grown-up child."
Perhaps it takes a childhood naivet and sense of wonder to get the full yield of Mackenna's Gold, with its over-reliance on nave matte shots, unpersuasive miniatures and the reliance on stunt doubles and articulated dummies to do the dirty work of the principal players. In this light Brian Garfield's assessment of it as a B-movie isn't entirely inappropriate. Many of the narrative's grandstanding scenes the crossing of an ancient, unsteady rope bridge; the chasing of the shadow of a desert obelisk to the secreted fortune; a seismic dues ex machina that brings the curtain down on the aggregation of greed and villainy seem to be pencil sketches for bits in an Indiana Jones adventure. Certainly, the George Lucas/ Lawrence Kasdan/Philip Kaufman story and screenplay for Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was rooted in the serial tropes of Hollywood westerns but the coincidence cuts even deeper. Present on location was George Lucas himself, then a graduate student at the University of Southern California. Lucas's student film THX 138:4HB (1967) had won the fledgling filmmaker an opportunity to follow the production of Mackenna's Gold for the purposes of shooting a making-of featurette.
Producer: Carl Foreman, Dimitri Tiomkin
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Screenplay: Carl Foreman (screenplay); Will Henry (novel)
Cinematography: Joseph Macdonald
Art Direction: Geoffrey Drake, Cary Odell
Music: Quincy Jones
Film Editing: Bill Lenny
Cast: Gregory Peck (MacKenna), Omar Sharif (Colorado), Telly Savalas (Sgt. Tibbs), Camilla Sparv (Inga Bergmann), Keenan Wynn (Sanchez), Julie Newmar (Hesh-Ke), Ted Cassidy (Hachita), Lee J. Cobb (The Editor), Raymond Massey (The Preacher), Burgess Meredith (The Storekeeper), Edward G. Robinson (Old Adams), Eli Wallach (Ben Baker).
by Richard Harland Smith
Gregory Peck: A Charmed Life by Lynn Haney (Da Capo Press, 2005)
Gregory Peck: A Biography by Gary Fishgall (Scribner)
Gregory Peck by Michael Freedland (W. Morrow & Co., 1980)
Gregory Peck: A Bio-Bibliography by Gerard Molyneaux (Greenwood Press, 1995)
J. Lee Thompson interview by Bill Hunt, The Digital Bits, www.thedigitalbits.com
George Lucas: Close Up (The Making of His Movies by Chris Salewicz (Da Capo Press, 1999)
George Lucas interview by Kerry O'Quinn, George Lucas Interviews, edited by Sally Kline (University of Mississippi Press, 1999)
Clint: The Life and Legend by Patrick McGilligan (St. Martin's Press, 1999)