Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin join a fur-trading trading expedition up the Missouri River in 1830. On the way they meet make their share of rough frontiersmen, admire the beautiful landscape and encounter a gorgeous Blackfoot Indian. However, they also have to try to survive the dangers and hardships that their travels throw at them.
Directed by Howard Hawks, The Big Sky is told on this huge mid-west canvas with mountains, rivers and trees helping to add realism to the story. It all looks pretty nice, but in the end it’s a very predictable not that engaging of a story.
For one, the characters are not exactly that riveting to watch or interact. Jim Deakins (Douglas) and Boone Caudill (Martin) are simply two proto-typical western tough guys that don’t have much else to them. I didn’t find them interesting and their friendship throughout the film just seemed too superficial to me to hold my interest. They join up with Boone’s Uncle Zeb, a coonskin wearing, whisker-faced old timer who is about to embark on an adventurous job.
He and and a group of men plan to take a keelboat up the Missouri River to trade with the Blackfoot Indians. This is something that has never been accomplished before. The Blackfoot refuse to trade with the white man. However, Zeb will be arriving with Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt), the daughter of a Blackfoot chief. They plan to use Teal Eye as a sure way to win their appreciation and is there ‘in’ to the trading with them.
It sounds like the start to an exciting adventure, but it’s not really. If anything it becomes a very standard western, pioneering story. Making their way up river there are encounters with danger – attacks by Indians, attacks by a competing fur-trading company, the physical toll of pulling the boat up river – but it all doesn’t result in really much of anything.
Our heroes encounter a threat, they overcome it and move on. That’s pretty much it. There isn’t really a sense that this trip is taking a physical or mental toll on the men. The scenes of struggle and obstacles that they must overcome almost become isolated vignettes. They don’t really add up to an overall story or leave repercussions on the characters that reverberate as they make their way further upriver.
At one point Douglas gets shot in the leg. He gets patched up and it’s pretty much forgotten about. He just gets better real fast! I mean, I know the guy is tough, but come on. His impromptu amputation by fireside is probably the most memorable scene.
Of course there’s a bit of romance that begins to spark towards Teal Eye. It initially looks to be something of a love triangle that will result in Deakins and Boone vying for her attention and perhaps cause some tension between these two friends along this journey. However, even that stops abruptly, goes nowhere and follows a more traditional romantic road Boone and Teal Eye hating each other, befriending each other and then….well take a guess.
Teal Eye who at the beginning of the story is simply viewed as a ticket to some good trading never gets a redemption. Perhaps, after getting to know her as a person and her eventual helping the expedition would change the men’s view of her. Maybe throw a little guilt on their heads about how they’re simply using her. Some conflicted thoughts at what they’re doing. Nope.
I caught this film on Turner Classic Movies and the fact that it was directed by Howard Hawks, starred Kirk Douglas and I had never seen it my ears perked up. Considering the names involved I was surprised to hear this never had a DVD release.
TCM ran the extended 144 minute version of the film and I really don’t think the extra included scenes added that much to it. They were very obvious too. The rough audio and visual quality of them made them look like they were filmed in 1830. Plus, everytime Martin was onscreen I was fixated by his nicely gelled hairstyle. I’m betting the real frontiersman weren’t so well-groomed.
So, it was a pretty forgettable film. Other than some of the picturesque location shooting there really wasn’t much to hold my interest with it. It’s certainly not Hawks’ or Douglas’ best film.
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