Underrated: MacKenna’s Gold

Given the recent political developments and this being a hectic time of the year, I’ve had trouble coming up with something interesting to write about (unless you want me to write about grading woes or sit there and listen to my post-election soul quietly weep). Then, one of my friends inadvertently (or was it vertently?) reminded me of a long-forgotten feature: The Underrated Movie. Thanks Kenneth.

As I stated in my previous Underrated Movie entry on Pitch Black, this is not about mainstream films or award-winning movies. These are movies that unjustly slipped by moviegoers and critics alike, and they deserve better. Today’s underrated movie: Mackenna’s Gold.

Starring a slew of icons and a Western formula on steroids, this is a film all about adventure. Gregory Peck plays a marshall who stumbles upon a map that leads to the legendary Canyon del Oro (Canyon of Gold). However, he runs into an old nemesis–a thief and murderer played by Omar Sharif who wants to find the canyon for himself and also exact revenge on Peck for arresting him. Unfortunately for Omar, Greg had burned the map. So, the marshall becomes his hostage (if Gregory doesn’t lead Omar to the gold, Omar will kill his other captive–an attractive woman!) until they reach the Canyon del Oro. On the way, they run into the cavalry, Apache, and American Indian spirits, along with Telly Savalas, Lee Cobb, Burgess Meredith, Edward G. Robinson, Eli Wallach, and a number of other stars.

Mackenna’s Gold came at the tail end of the Western heyday. Made in 1969, the days of John Ford, John Wayne, The Magnificent Seven, and Shane were long-since passed, but the spirit lives on in this movie.

So why do I love this movie? Why has it made it through my childhood into adulthood relatively unscathed, despite my dangerous levels of cynicism?  Quite frankly, it’s because Mackenna’s Gold is SO Western and SO over-the-top that it bypasses absurd and achieves greatness.

Let me walk you through the various scenes in Gold. From a hidden box canyon hideout, the characters are ambushed at an old well by the cavalry, travel to a secret oasis, are pursued by the cavalry through the mountains and desert, and get chased by Apaches down a river before finding a secret canyon practically made of gold. Oh, and of course there were also gun fights, plenty of hand-to-hand combat, high-speed horse chases, betrayal, love, hate, and a mother-fucking earthquake. For reals.

Everything in this movie is spectacularly big budget, in the grand tradition of the Western epic. Check out these locations from the film:

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As you can see, it’s all grandoise, and it’s all wonderful. What makes it especially fun (beyond the fact that it tries so hard to entertain us) is the wild disparity of quality within the movie. You’ll have one shot of a sweeping vista that captures the vastness of the Old West, and five minutes later the actors will be sitting around on a set that looks like it was swiped from The Three Amigos. You’ll see a wonderful action sequence that is both tense and exciting, but the next frame is a shot of tiny, poorly constructed models. And, of course, every once in a while you’ll have some 1970s-esque camera effects to just add to the cheesiness.

I don’t discuss this to be a jerk. Honestly, it’s this kind of thing that makes the movie that much more endearing. Sure, it has some cheesy effects, the run-time is a bit long, and some of the actors look exhausted. But it also has some great sequences, an adventurous spirit, a stellar cast, and a compelling story. But, most importantly, it has heart, which is a staple of the Western and something that is sorely lacking in many films today.