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,The Hallelujah Trail

The Hallelujah Trail

After the box office successes of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963), Sturges had the opportunity to work on big budget productions with top name stars like Steve McQueen and Spencer Tracy. So it was surprising when he chose to direct a suspense thriller, The Satan Bug (1965), that was devoid of proven box office talent. Even more surprising was his follow-up project, a long, sprawling Western spoof entitled The Hallelujah Trail (1965), which baffled many of his Hollywood colleagues.

The Hallelujah Trail was an ambitious project from the very start. The story follows two cavalrymen (Burt Lancaster and Jim Hutton) as they escort a wagonload of whiskey to Denver while enduring Indian attacks, belligerent drunks, and a crusading temperance league led by Lee Remick. To Sturges, it was a Western composed of pure situational comedy elements, a form of filmmaking that he had not tackled previously, plus the scope of the picture was truly daunting, even for Sturges. The production alone totaled nearly 300 cast members and a myriad of crew members behind the camera.

Shot on location in Gallup, New Mexico, The Hallelujah Trail definitely had its share of behind-the-scenes crises. In Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster by Gary Fishgall, second unit director Tim Zimmerman recalled that Gallup in the early sixties was "a truck stop on the old Route 66. It was a very rough town...There were a lot of bars, and everybody went to all of them, and everybody got into trouble." Some of that trouble spilled over to the set and it was reported that Lancaster did not get along with two of his co-stars, Brian Keith and Lee Remick. Another problem, according to actor Martin Landau, "was bad weather continually. The day would usually start beautifully, and then the afternoon storms would come up." Worst of all, a stuntman named Bill Williams was crushed to death beneath the wheels of a wagon while performing a stunt.

On top of these production delays, which put the film six weeks behind schedule, Sturges took on the additional challenge of shooting in Ultra Panavision 70, an expensive widescreen process. In order to properly promote the film, Sturges released the picture through United Artists as a "road show" picture, a special exhibition showing (usually at a prestigious theater on a reserved-seat basis and at a higher admission price). This turned out to be a costly decision during a time in Hollywood when widescreen epics were quickly falling out of favor with American audiences. Furthermore, The Hallelujah Trail was not a traditional Western in any sense of the word and veered schizophrenically from broad physical comedy to epic action sequences. As expected the reviews were less than satisfactory and some critics simply hated the picture, citing the excessive length (165 minutes!) as a deterrent.

But The Hallelujah Trail was probably a victim of bad timing more than anything else for it followed in the wake of the much more successful Western comedy, Cat Ballou (1965). After all, how many Western spoofs do audiences want to see in one year? While The Hallelujah Trail might suffer in comparison to the former film, the New Mexico scenery looked breathtaking on the massive concave screens and the film's quirky sense of humor gave rise to other comedy-Western hybrids. Subsequent movies like There Was a Crooked Man...(1970), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), and Blazing Saddles(1974) were undoubtedly influenced by this blending of genre conventions that John Sturges introduced to contemporary audiences with The Hallelujah Trail.

Director: John Sturges
Producer: John Sturges, Robert E. Relyea
Screenplay: John Gay, based on the novel by Bill Gulick
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Editor: Ferris Webster
Art Direction: Cary Odell
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Col. Thaddeus Gearhart), Lee Remick (Cora Templeton Massingale), Jim Hutton (Capt. Paul Slater), Pamela Tiffin (Louise Gearhart), Donald Pleasence ("Oracle" Jones), Brian Keith (Frank Wallingham).
C-156m. Letterboxed.

By Scott McGee

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