Howard Hawks is – without doubt – one of the greatest directors of all time. With a career that spanned genres and decades, he made some of the finest rom-coms ever, and some of the finest Westerns ever, as well as dabbling with everything from gangsters to science-fiction to musicals. His output includes masterpieces such as ‘Bringing Up Baby’ (1938) and ‘The Big Sleep’ (1946), and for most immediate comparison here, the Westerns ‘Red River’ (1948) and ‘Rio Bravo’ (1959).
Hopefully that adulation gives me the right to defame one of his other ‘classics’. ‘The Big Sky’ is not a very good film. It is a ‘classic’, not in the high-quality sense of the word, but in the badly out-dated and old-fashioned sense.
Set in the 1830s, it charts the story of Jim Deakins and Boone Caudill (Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin), on the run from the law following a minor indiscretion, so form part of an expedition to travel up and explore the Missouri river, with the hope of trading with the Native Americans who live there.
Politically, the film is very dubious. And by ‘dubious’ I mean racist and sexist. The Big Sky is a story of when men were men, Native Americans were Injuns, and women were relegated to minor, one-dimensional characters whose relevance to the plot is entirely in relation to the men around them.
The Big Sky fits perfectly into the vast swath of Westerns from this era where Native American tribes are portrayed as savages who dared to fight back when their land was taken by white settlers. Some may argue that this just makes The Big Sky a film ‘of its time’. But not all Westerns of the era were like that. Broken Arrow (Delmer Daves, 1950), starring James Stewart, did offer a sympathetic portrayal, and while certainly not being a masterpiece by any measure, was a far better Western than this.
Towards the end of the film, a slightly more nuanced portrayal of the native Americans emerges. Slightly. The film’s politics had lost me well before then. And actually it’s not that much more nuanced, rather it just no longer sets them out to be evil. It continues to poke fun at their strange customs traditional way of life.
Aside from the politics – and that is a lot to put to one side – the question must then be asked of how the film stands up cinematically. The answer is ‘not great’.
There are yet further problems with the writing (the screenplay was by Dudley Nichols, adapting the book by A. B. Guthrie Jr.). As well as the aforementioned issues of sexism and racism, the story fails to grip the audience at all, and the dialogue lacks any spark or wit.
Kirk Douglas at the centre is certainly engrossing. But in the same year as this, he starred in the excellent ‘The Bad And The Beautiful’ (Vincente Minnelli), and the year before he was Chuck Tatum in the exceptional ‘Ace In The Hole’, a too-little-seen masterpiece from Billy Wilder. So compared to his other output of this era, this is still one to ignore.
All in all, the film offers nothing new or innovative to the Western genre, even for the time it was made. And to be honest, it was instantly forgettable. One of the advantages to me of writing this review is to act as a memory aid, otherwise I doubt I would be able to remember it in a month’s time.
STOP PRESS: To prove the above point, after watching the film I realise that I have seen it before, but with absolutely no recollection. Not at one stage of the film did I have any memory of it. Not once. At least that’ll make it memorable now. But I still wouldn’t rule out me re-watching it by mistake again …