Thursday 20 January 2022

Movie Review: MacKenna's Gold (1969)

A western treasure hunt adventure, MacKenna's Gold harbours ambitions of grandeur but is just plain awful.

In Arizona of 1874, Marshal Sam MacKenna (Gregory Peck) stumbles upon a map locating a canyon full of gold. Local legends have long spoken about such a location, with Apache spirits protecting the treasure from any intruders. Sam burns the map, but is soon captured by his old foe the bandit Colorado (Omar Sharif) who believes Sam must remember the map's details.

Colorado's gang also holds Inga Bergemann (Camilla Sparv) as a hostage to dissuade a chasing cavalry group from attacking. Sergeant Tibbs (Telly Savalas) is a cavalry member with his own ambitions to find the gold. A group of men from the nearby town of Hadleyburg join Colorado's treasure hunt, including Old Adams (Edward G. Robinson), who claims to have once seen the treasure before being blinded by vengeful Apaches. MacKenna does not believe the gold even exists, but has to keep himself alive long enough to escape and rescue Inga. 

Clocking in at an interminable 128 minutes, with horrifying legends of an original three hour cut, MacKenna's Gold is plagued by plastic motivations, bad casting, superfluous folksy narration, and an almost laughably inept script courtesy of producer Carl Foreman. Director J. Lee Thompson does capture majestic scenery and dazzling rock formations in Arizona and Utah, but the visual beauty is quickly trampled by atrocious pacing and unimaginative dynamics.

Within a charisma-free set of characters, the usually reliable Gregory Peck is simply disinterested, while Omar Sharif tries and miserably fails to channel Tuco. Both are not helped by remarkably juvenile dialogue in which characters threaten to kill each other in every scene.

The lowlights arrive early and frequently. The so-bad-it's-really-bad opening song Old Turkey Buzzard, incredibly composed by Quincy Jones with lyrics by Foreman, sets the stage, and the turkey reference soon proves entirely appropriate. An entire sub-cast of veteran actors, including Robinson, Eli Wallach, Lee J. Cobb, Anthony Quayle, Raymond Massey, and Burgess Meredith, is introduced with the theatrical inelegance of a stiff board meeting, before being summarily massacred in the next scene.

Director Thompson and his team of editors clumsily paste the stars into the action scenes with fuzzy and mismatched rear-projection. As part of a limp lust triangle, an entirely silent Julie Newmar as Apache woman Hesh-Ke, a member of Colorado's gang, spends the entire movie trying to kill Camilla Sparv's Inga. One of these women ends up falling to their death off an enormous cliff, but no one seems to remotely care. 

The ending features a rock formation shadow that grows longer as the sun rises, then three characters inexplicably scale an impossible-to-climb vertical cliff; two of them fight on a ledge half-way up; then all three clamber back down. The grand finale of destruction mixes a few impressive shots of collapsing rocks with plenty of atrocious miniature effects unworthy of a film school project.

It's easy to imagine MacKenna's Gold impressing ten year old boys. Everyone else starts to wonder whether Old Adams' poke-your-eyes-out fate is really all that bad.

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