MacKenna's Gold (1969)

Dir: J. Lee Thompson, Cast: Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, Telly Savalas, Camilla Sparv, Julie Newmar, Ted Cassidy, Eli Wallach, Edward G. Robinson, Burgess Meredith, Lee J. Cobb, Keenan Wynn, Anthony Quayle - Narrated by Victor Jory 

I wouldn't call this a great movie, but it was the first western I ever saw in cinema so it has a special place in my heart. It must have been an Easter or Christmas holiday, since the cinema was filled with boys of my age, about thirteen or fourteen years old. Temperatures rose to tropical heights when Julie Newmar took off her clothes and jumped into a mountain lake, and I guess temperatures weren't the only things rising. 

Mackenna's Gold was released in 1969, a remarkably good year for the American western. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, The Wild Bunch and True Grit were all released in this pivotal year,  but these westerns were all events in their own very special right: True Grit was Duke's Oscar winning movie, Butch & Cassidy managed to touch the strings of a generation and Peckinpah's 'dirty western' seemed to rephrase the western vocabulary in answer to the Italian western. Mackenna's Gold just looked old-fashioned. It was based on a 1963 novel (by Henry Wilson Allen), but with its story about a treasure map, a canyon of gold, a noble hero, treacherous villains, a blond innocent girl and a dark witchy bitch, it almost seems closer in spirit to the old-time serials than to the Crazy Sixties.

The story, loosely based on the legend of the Lost Adams Diggings, is relatively simple: Marshal Mackenna from Hadleyburg is forced to shoot an old Indian who tried to bushwack him. He subsequently comes in possession of a treasure map indicating the location of the legendary caƱon de oro of the Apaches.  Mackenna doesn't believe in the map and therefore burns it, moments before the arrival of a group of bandits, led by a Mexican called Colorado. The bandit reckons Mackenna has memorized the map before burning it, and forces him the lead the group to the canyon. Also after the gold are a group of gold-hungry citizens from Hadleyburg, while things are complicated by a small group of cavalry men chasing Colorado.

One look at the cast will tell you that this movie was an ambitious affair. Producer and screenwriter Foreman and director Thompson had collaborated on The Guns of Navarone and were probably thinking of copying its success, but Mackenna's Gold turned out to be a very troublesome production. It was years in the making, some of the original plans were frustrated by Columbia, and it was also drastically cut from three hours to a little over two hours, leading to a couple of inconsistencies. The original choice for the Mackenna part, was Clint Eastwood, who chose to do Hang 'm High instead. Gregory Peck does a decent job, as always, but he looks a bit tired in a couple of scenes. Omar Sharif (an Egyptian cast as a Mexican!) turns in a nice, if mannered performance as Colorado. None of the other actors gets much chance to show what he's capable of, with the exception of Newmar, who buns the screen as the evil Hesh-ke.

Mackenna's Gold still offers some of thrills of the true adventure movie (I loved it as a kid, and not only for Julie),  but it's betrayed by a couple of awful special effects and annoying rear projections. The combination of (often breathtakingly beautiful) location work and scenes shot in the studio is downright embarrassing. There are also several goofs and silly story elements. As the sun rises, shadows grow shorter, not longer, and during the finale the two main characters climb a impossible vertical ridge for no discernable reason, have a fight on a halfway ledge, then climb down again. Pure madness!

The movie was almost entirely forgotten when somebody discovered that a young George Lucas had been on the location in Utah to shoot a documentary about the making of it (as part of his studies for USC). Ever since then it has become a sport to trace similarities between the movie and Lucas' scripts for the Indiana Jones trilogy. There are a few, and discovering them may add to the corny fun of this movie.


(Julie Newmar)
(Lost Adams Diggings)