1950s, 2.5/4, Adventure, Howard Hawks, Review

The Big Sky

Amazon.com: The Big Sky POSTER Movie (22 x 28 Inches - 56cm x 72cm) (1952)  (Half Sheet Style B): Posters & Prints

#28 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.

This is the boys’ adventure novel version of Red River, the story of a dangerous trek on a mission into the wilds that no one has done before but lacking a lot of the drama and focus of the earlier film. It also seems to have one too many main characters, diverting attention in weird directions here and there when it shouldn’t have. It’s a fine little adventure, but it just doesn’t quite come together enough.

Kirk Douglas is Jim Deakins and Dewey Martin is Boone Caudill, two wanderers who come together and form a friendship. They travel to St. Louis to meet up with Boone’s uncle, Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt). Zeb has a business partner, the very French Frenchy (Steven Geray), and they have a plan to go further along the Missouri River than any other white man has to trade for furs from the Blackfoot tribe. Not even the dominant fur trading company has managed to get that far, unable to find a way to ingratiate themselves with the Blackfoot enough to even initiate trade. Zeb and Frenchy have a secret weapon, though, they’ve found a Blackfoot princess who had been separated from her tribe for a few years. They’ll return her in the hope that the magnanimous move will allow them to trade. They build a crew, including Jim and Boone, of course, and head westward on the river.

One of my central problems steadily arose as they started the journey. Zeb and Jim seem to be two manifestations of the same stock character in slightly different form. They perform a lot of the same basic narrative functions, and this ends up creating three main characters (Boone being the third) where there should probably only be two. They’re both the older, more experienced man on the trip, offering a more guiding hand to Boone. It’s true that Zeb has the experience on the river that Jim doesn’t, but that’s kind of why I feel like it was one character split in two. This was adapted from a novel by A.B. Guthrie Jr., so I imagine that this is how it was in the novel. It might have worked in the novel, too, but I feel like combining these two into one might have been a better approach for a cinematic creation. It’s not just that they feel redundant, it’s that they occupy screen time drawing them fairly specifically that should have probably been spent on Boone. As it currently is, I see three main characters, but I think that there really should have been one, Boone.

Boone’s an interesting character on his own. He’s going out west to find his uncle to make some kind of living, and he is the one to get romantically involved with the Blackfoot princess Teal Eye. It’s nothing groundbreaking. They start antagonistic (around Boone carrying around a Blackfoot scalp Zeb says belonged to the Blackfoot that killed his father) and grow closer as dangerous events bring them together, in particular when Boone rescues her after she falls off the boat. Further dangers bring them closer together.

Along the way, the boat is pursued by agents of the fur trading company. This is the purely adventurous part of the story that works best. The company tries to burn the ship in the middle of the night, only to have the crew turn it all around on them, stealing the company’s horses and guns. The company convinces a tribe of Crows to attack the boat, which the company fights off. During the attack Jim, Boone, and Teal Eye get separated from the rest of the crew for over a week. The company uses the opportunity of the crew losing Teal Eye, their key to trade with the Blackfoot, as leverage to begin negotiations to stop, but the three separated come back just in time. It’s amusing, solidly done stuff.

The final scenes prove to me that Boone should have been the one and only main character. He’s the only character with an emotional decision to make. For the rest, including Zeb and Jim, it’s just the end of an adventure. For Boone, it’s a potential turning point in his life. I really think Zeb and Jim should have been combined into one character, and more attention should have been paid to Boone. I think this would have been a good way to imbue some actual subtext to the film. My problem with the film isn’t that it lacks much subtext, but that the text itself is just fine while there’s no subtext to help provide extra dimension to the story.

Acting is fine all around while the production makes good use of the outdoors to create some striking visuals, extending the strong visual streak that Hawks had been developing over the past few films. It’s a somewhat frustrating little film that could have used another couple of drafts at the script stage.

Rating: 2.5/4

5 thoughts on “The Big Sky”

  1. Another one I’ll need to check out. Thank you for being so through in digging through Hawk’s filmography.

    I don’t actually agree about combining characters. I find stories where two characters are combined into one to be awkward and unrealistic, if that makes sense. A larger cast, even if some get scant attention, feels more real. Fewer characters starts to feel like a stage play or some characters feel like a stitched together Frankenstein as they try to carry the weight and motivation of the originally-written plot.
    —as examples, in the movie Relic, the detective character, Lieutenant D’Agosta, is a combination of two book (written by ‘Preston and Child’) characters: an FBI agent named Pendergast and a local police detective. The composite character has to carry the narrative weight that was divided between two characters in the book.
    –Or Chico from the Magnificent Seven, who is a squashed together version of young samurai Katsushiro and peasant imposter Kikuchiyo. Also I hate Chico, so this is an easy amalgam to dislike.

    I think, even in film, you can have a good sized cast that may not have a lot to ‘do’ but having them makes the world and the characters mean more. I think there’s too much ‘formula’ in filmmaking, to be honest.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The thing about these two in particular is that they’re so complimentary that they largely serve the same purpose to the actual main character. It doesn’t decrease this standard formula of elder leading the younger, it just makes it less clear unnecessarily.

      Another potential “fix” would be to differentiate between the two further, making them feel more distinct, if you didn’t want to just mash them up.

      Like

  2. Blasphemer!! Well, it’s been a few years now since I’ve seen it so can’t really recall the movie enough to know if I’d agree with your comments, but in my memory of it it’s a three and half star movie. Just a loosely plotted adventure story, seems to have at least some basis in Lewis and Clark, but this is about a commercial venture, not just a strictly exploration expedition. So another favorite Hawks movie for me.

    Like

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