Sunday, Sep 2020
Director: Howard Hawks
Screenwriters: From an A.B. Guthrie novel, Dudley Nichols
Length: 140 minutes
Released: 1952

Big Sky PosterThis movie is based on the novel of the same name by A.B. Guthrie, who some call 'The Poet of Westward Expansion', published in 1947. Guthrie won Pulitzer Prize for the sequel, The Way West, from which a movie was produced in 1967, starring Douglas again, Robert Mitchum and Sally Field in her first movie. That movie's not so hot. The Big Sky, however is an excellent film.

Douglas stars as a Kentucky mountaineer who joins up with a fur-trapping company traveling up the Missouri river by keelboat in the 1830s. "This is the tale of the first man who took a keelboat up the Missouri river..." the script informs us at the outset. Guthrie's books are quite historically detailed, but this film only follows about half the story of the book, and is more loose with history. But it is a solid Western and very entertaining movie.

In violation of vaguely legislated CouchCowboy rules, I would like to compare elements of The Big Sky with two non-Westerns. First, the scene where Deakens and Boone meet their future traveling companion Uncle Zeb (though they were looking for him--) in a St.Louis jail cell after a drunken brawl reminded me of the famous introduction to Jack Nicholson's character in Easy Rider. Secondly, the mysterious aura of river travel in The Big Sky, particularly with the Indian attacks and their spooky following the boat on horseback remind me of Apocalypse Now. I wouldn't hesitate too long to suggest that any of the scenes in the later movies were modeled on The Big Sky. I always cited Apocalypse Now as my favorite River Movie, bar none. Now, I rate The Big Sky a close second.

Kirk Douglas is excellent as Deakens. The rest of the cast is relatively unknown but do well, particularly Arthur Hunnicutt as the wiley and wise Uncle Zeb, who also narrates the story with folksy good humor. Hawks' direction is excellent and the photography is superb, capturing much beautiful scenery. It is nice to watch a pre-Civil War Western for a change and we see how this era had all the excitement of the Indian Wars period in the 1880s. At first, our trapper heroes confront three major obstacles: the mighty River itself, a competing and unscrupulous fur Company, AND the Blackfeet Indians. But the Indians soon become respected trading partners, and the Native-American treatment in this movie is respectable, though not politically correct by today's standards.

The Big Sky has fine characters, suspense and action. The viewer gets a good sense of how many different types of people had to work together to trap, trade and settle in the early trans-Mississippi West. For all these reasons and other unmentioned delights, we rate The Big Sky a solid MUST SEE.

Cast:

  • Kirk Douglas....Jim Deakins
  • Dewey Martin....Boone Cardell
  • Elizabeth Threatt.... Teal Eye, Blackfoot Princess
  • Arthur Hunnicutt....Zeb Calloway/Narrator
  • Buddy Baer.... Romaine
  • Steven Geray.... 'Frenchy' Jourdonnais, Riverboat Captain
  • Henri Letondal.... La Badie
  • Hank Worden.... Poordevil
  • Jim Davis.... Streak
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