“It sure is big country; the only thing bigger is the sky.”
In the 1830s, frontiersmen Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) and Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) meet up with Boone’s Uncle Zeb (Arthur Hunnicutt) in St. Louis, and join a group of mountain men led by “Frenchy” Jourdonnais (Steven Geray). Hoping to trade with Blackfoot Indians by safely delivering their kidnapped princess Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt) to them, the trappers head west along the Missouri River; their plans are complicated, however, by the presence of hostile Crow Indians, and by members of a rival fur trading company who hope to capture and use Teal Eye for their own purposes.
Based on a bestselling novel by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., this unusual western effectively evokes both the danger and the excitement of life for fur trading “mountain men” — pioneers of early American history not often portrayed in films (1972’s Jeremiah Johnson — also listed by Peary — is a notable exception). Grizzly Arthur Hunnicut (who deserved his nomination as Best Supporting Actor) narrates the film, and, despite Kirk Douglas’s top billing, emerges as its central figure; but Douglas’s performance is equally impressive, and beautiful Elizabeth Threatt (half-Cherokee in real life) is surprisingly dignified and effective as Teal Eyes — it’s too bad this was her only film. Dewey Martin as Douglas’s younger “partner” is the least impressive of the bunch, and his anachronistically gleaming leather pants — especially in contrast with the film’s overall attention to historical detail — are enormously distracting; one can’t help feeling he was cast simply to provide a hunky heartthrob. Of primary interest to film buffs, however, will be the presence of director Howard Hawks’ characteristic trademarks: realistically overlapping dialogue, an undercurrent of homoeroticism between Douglas and Martin (those pants!), and his depiction of the male traders as hardworking and loyal. While it’s overlong by at least half an hour, The Big Sky remains a satisfying adventure tale by one of America’s great directors, and should be seen by all film fanatics.
P.S. Martin’s rolling tussles with beautiful Teal Eyes are unexpectedly racy — as is the surprising tepee scene near the end of the film.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Arthur Hunnicutt’s Oscar-nominated performance as Uncle Zeb
- Kirk Douglas as Jim Deakins
- Russell Harlan’s b&w cinematography
- An unusual premise and setting for a Western
- Douglas getting his finger chopped off to prevent infection
Yes, for Hunnicutt’s Oscar-nominated performance.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)