Big Sky, The (1952)

Big Sky, The (1952)

“It sure is big country; the only thing bigger is the sky.”

Synopsis:
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.

Genres:

Review:
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
    Big Sky Hunnicut
  • Kirk Douglas as Jim Deakins
    Big Sky Douglas
  • Russell Harlan’s b&w cinematography
    Big Sky Cinematography
  • An unusual premise and setting for a Western
    Big Sky Trappers2
  • Douglas getting his finger chopped off to prevent infection

Must See?
Yes, for Hunnicutt’s Oscar-nominated performance.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One thought on “Big Sky, The (1952)

  1. First viewing. A once-must, mainly for its refreshingly natural way of storytelling and its sense of history.

    This is a Hawks film that is rarely talked about. I would imagine that many Hawks fans don’t even know of its existence. I barely knew of it myself, and I’ve seen the larger percentage of Hawks’ work. (The generic title doesn’t do much to draw attention to it.) The atypical spirit of Dudley Nichols’ textured screenplay – something the average viewer is not that accustomed to – is the very reason it should be seen. It’s not that it challenges the viewer particularly – there’s a strong through-line, a requisite number of dramatic events and satisfyingly ambitious location-shooting – but everything still unfolds in an oddly leisurely way. (I don’t feel the film is overlong.)

    Hunnicutt’s character is agreeably colorful and, yes, Threatt brings more to her role (as things progress) than one might expect. Douglas isn’t bad but his performance is more-or-less in the standard Douglas mold.

    I actually like Martin in this – not because of his ‘heartthrob’ appeal (though I do think he’s sexy without trying) but I find him believable. (To be honest, I didn’t take note of his pants.) Cinema history is overflowing with heartthrob-types but they tend to do little for me if they’re mostly there for decoration and can’t really act. To me, Martin is effective – though I didn’t particularly pick up on any homoeroticism between him and Douglas (even if Hawks, of course, is no stranger to homoeroticism; I just don’t see it here).

    I also like Geray as Frenchy. I’ve only recently noticed him in a way I hadn’t before. I always remembered him from ‘Gilda’ (as Uncle Pio) but he has also done interesting work in films such as ‘The Mask of Dimitrios’, ‘The Seventh Cross’ and ‘The Unfaithful’. Of Hungarian descent, Geray seemed to have considerable range as a character actor and I’ve thought to check out some of his other, lesser-known performances. (It seems he eventually appeared quite often on television.)

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