Along the Wide Missouri
"The Big Sky" has a lot of big names attached to it, it is directed by Howard Hawks, it stars Kirk Douglas, Arthur Hunnicutt and Hank Worden and even the story is a big story a big adventure. But here is the thing Howard Hawks made a big adventure movie which was 140 minutes long, the studios cut it down to 122 minutes and sadly Hawks was not over infused with that shortened finished product and not so much disowned it but didn't put his heart into promoting it. And I can understand why because I have only seen the shortened version and whilst all the pieces are there to make a stunning, big adventure movie it ends up quite bitty, being a series of episodic adventures which lack the elements to connect it together. There is still plenty of greatness going on in "The Big Sky" and watching the adventure of a boat being poled and pulled up river is thrilling but something for me is missing.
Frontiersman Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas - The Big Trees) finds himself buddying up with Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin), his Uncle Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt - Distant Drums) and a group of men who plan to make a dangerous journey up the Missouri River to trade with the Blackfoot Indians. But it is a dangerous journey from the perils of trying to pull and pole their boat up river to uncomfortable encounters with Indians and rival fur traders. And for Deakins and Boone there are further complications as aboard the ship is Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt) a Blackfoot Princess which the men plan to use to bargain with except both these friends find themselves falling for her.
To be honest the first 20 minutes of "The Big Sky" feels drawn out, this opening 20 minutes introduces us to the main characters those of Jim Deakins and Boone Caudill who meet when Boone saves Jim from a snake and they become best friends. It feels drawn out as whilst it sets up their relationship and that of Boone's Uncle Zeb we get a couple of out of place almost musical numbers in a saloon with men singing. Maybe this is authentic for the early 19th century, maybe these tough men did have sing-a-longs in saloons but it feels wrong and quite cheesy.
Fortunately get this opening salvo out of the way and we get to the main story and what "The Big Sky" is all about, the adventure of Deakins, Boone, Zeb and a group of men travelling up the Missouri with the plan of trading with Blackfoot Indians. The adventure comes in various guises be it trouble with Indians along the way, the dodgy Streak who works for fur trader MacMasters and is willing to kill Deakins, Boone and the men. Plus there is the excitement of trying to pull and pole a boat up stream through dangerous water which is genuinely exciting. But all of this feels very episodic as if all the elements which linked these scenes together have been left on the cutting room floor in order to keep the running time down.
There are still some linkage scenes and those which do survive the cut are good such as a brilliant scene where Deakins having damaged his finger has to have it chopped off, a strangely funny scene as he is plied with drink to numb the pain. And with these men becoming befriended by the crazy and whisky loving Indian Poordevil there is more comedy with Hank Worden delivering a brilliant performance. If only more of this connective tissue had stayed then maybe "The Big Sky" would have been the big movie it clearly should be.
Alongside all of this adventure we also have the relationship between Deakins and Boone as both of them fall for Teal Eye the Blackfoot Indian Princess who is travelling with them and is the bargaining tool for when they reach Blackfoot territory. But this isn't just a comical rivalry sub plot as with the character Boone he finds himself torn as he hates Blackfoot Indians, blaming them for the murder of his brother yet here he is falling for a Blackfoot Princess. And where in other movies this rivalry would end in a comical brawl Hawks gives us a different look at how men respect each other despite being rivals.
Of course with "The Big Sky" being an adventure movie set on a river we do have Hawks delivering scenes out in the open and even though we are talking a black and white movie they are all impressive. Every scene which focuses on trying to drag the boat upstream are just stunning yet so are the few moments when Hawks allows us to see the bigger picture especially when we witness angry Indians lining up along the ridges which run parallel to the river.
But here is the thing "The Big Sky" has a lot of good performances, Dewey Martin is excellent as Boone as he deals with his own issues of hating the Blackfoot but loving Teal Eye. And whilst Elizabeth Threatt doesn't actually say much as Teal Eye the emotion she delivers from anger to love is just wonderful, in fact it is a crying shame that "The Big Sky" was Threatt's only movie. Plus both Arthur Hunnicutt and Hank Worden deliver fun performances in typical quirky characters. But then there is Kirk Douglas as Jim Deakins and as a fan of Douglas it hurts to say this but he was wrong for the role. Douglas is wrong because his charming persona, that cockiness and big smile ends up dominating every scene he is in and it edges towards being cheesy. It just feels like the character of Deakins whilst a confident traveller is portrayed as being too confident here.
What this all boils down to is that "The Big Sky" is a good western, in fact even the 122 minutes version is a better than average western but it feels like something has been left on the cutting room floor making it too episodic. Being episodic is not its only issue but thankfully you have the real excitement of the adventure to make up for this as well as the depth when it comes to relationships.