With ”The Big Sky” I am getting two in a row with Kirk Douglas. Apparently he was a very popular guy during this period in Hollywood. “The Big Sky” however is a very different film from “The Bad and the Beautiful”. A more fitting name would be “Beavis and Butthead in Injunland”. I will get to the explanation soon enough, but let me just state right away that this is not my favorite movie on the list.
This is a big open-sky film about the opening of the frontier in the nineteenth century. An epic scale tale of a trade expedition up the Missouri river that would break the fur company monopoly and open the way to those who followed in the decades to come. Thus the stage is set for heroes braving danger from man and nature with plenty of scenery and real, grimy and sweaty men.
We follow two young men, Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) and Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) who are looking for Boone’s uncle Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt) in St. Louis in 1832. They find him just as he is about to embark on a momentous journey up the Missouri on a keelboat and decide to join the expedition. Zeb’s partner on the expedition is “Frenchy” Jourdonnais, the captain of the boat. He and his crew are a colorful French speaking lot, which is probably quite authentic as there were still a French influence on the Mississippi (old French Louisiana).
The expedition crawls its away upstream through a combination of rowing, pushing and towing and faces a number of natural challenges. Soon however man-made challenges appear. The expedition seeks to break a monopoly held by a nefarious organization named “The Fur Company” by trading directly with the Blackfoot Indians. These have a reputation of being hostile, but the Zeb and Frenchy has a secret weapon: an Indian princess (Elizabeth Threatt). They are bringing her back to her tribe and are counting on that that will make them receptable for some trading.
First however they need to get around the Fur Company and that is not so easy. They have a bad guy called Streak (Jim Davis) who are up to bad tricks including stirring the Crows, but Zeb has a tame Injun named Poordevil who helps them out and soon the expedition is a great success.
It is clear that Howard Hawks with this movie wanted to play for the big epic and at 2 hours playing time he is certainly stretching it enough. The problem is just that the film generally leaves me cold. This has much to do with the characters and certainly a lot to do with the general attitude of the movie. Both of which largely products of its time.
Jim and Boone are two boneheads who over the course the movie’s two hour running time continuously make wrong or bad decisions. They are presented as hero types that we are supposed to root for but they are little more than hillbillies. Boone has a deep-felt hate for Indians and walk around with the scalp of some Indian his brother killed. That is exactly the kind of guy you do NOT want to bring on a risky expedition that requires delicacy towards the Indians.
The crew are all a bunch of tough nails, which makes it tricky to bring along a single woman. We see how Frenchy disciplines one of the crew members for making advances towards her, but that does not keep our two “heroes” from making their advances. Stupidly, but they get away with it. The privilege of being a lead.
Our two idiots also keep making their own decisions, often in direct violation of their orders. Something which on such an expedition should be entirely out of the question. The success is entirely depending on the discipline of the crew. One wrong step at the wrong time and it all falls to pieces. However command structure does not seem to concern Jim and Boone and Zeb is a very forgiving uncle when it comes to his favorite nephew. Frankly it just does not make sense, except that a Hollywood production in 1952 cannot have two young men star without letting them show some initiative.
Then there is the attitude towards the Indians. This is definitely a product of its time. Poordevil is a brave idiot to look at, almost degenerate and the tribes are described somewhere between proud savages and barbaric beasts. Alien, primitive, uncivilized. All the while these are exactly the words I would use to describe Zeb and Frenchy’s band of hillbillies. I know there is a lot of historic truth to the transactions of pelts for trinkets and beads and that these items were probably valued by the natives (and a lot safer than guns and whiskey), but you cannot help feeling that they are being cheated outrageously.
Near the end it is almost as if Hawks is regretting the sentiments displayed so far in his film, when the Indians actually turn out smarter than they are given credit as Boone gets married to the Indian princess for transgressing her privacy, but is allowed to “buy” himself free because they know he is fickle and will not be staying. Boone himself also experiences a change of heart when his passion turn from hate to love and the natives become real people to him. These turns came as a surprise to me because the movie seemed so set in its ways and now seemed to say: “ hey, look, I know this was pretty stupid, but I am not really that dumb”.
Is it enough to save the movie? I doubt it. In 1952 this was probably the right movie but today it feels terribly dated. Also Howard Hawks is usually better than this. Better luck next time.