When I first saw MacKenna’s Gold (1969) I was 13 or 14 and thought it was a classic — great special effects and sound effects for the Sixties, visuals for the earthquake at the end that buries all that gold. And it had other elements a kid moviegoer wanted. Even kind of a happy though cheesy twist ending reminiscent of the Sixties’ James Bond series, where the guy and the girl survive to live happily ever after with saddlebags full of gold. These days the romantic charms of Julie Newmar and Camilla Sparv are about the only ones that stack up, along with the theme tune as sung by Jose Feliciano and narrative by Victor Jory. And their fights over Gregory Peck with knives, whips, cat-wrestling in a big pond, show a piquant hint of sado-masochism (though admittedly I didn’t think about lithe young women in those terms then).
Six-foot-three Greg Peck — here dwarfed by six-nine Ted Cassidy of “Lurch” fame in tv’s The Addams Family — was always good for an epic, as was Omar Sharif. Both had worked with director J Lee Thompson before early in the decade on earlier epics (The Guns of Navarone and Taras Bulba). Telly Savalas tended to pick his pictures for blockerbuster appeal too — sheer Sixties commercial potential. The cast included a host of older guest stars, all along for the ride and underused: Edward G Robinson, Raymond Massey, Burgess Meredith, Lee J Cobb, Eli Wallach, Anthony Quayle. Sharif probably gives the best performance, at least tries the hardest. Most of the rest of the cast looks demoralised (but for Julie, who’s crazy) and I can’t blame them. Amid all this, stupid back-process shots, carelessly speeded-up film and gimmicky horse’s-head-point-of-view mounted-camera shots are too much to take.
Meantime, Missouri-born screenwriter William Rose had spent the Fifties in Britain creating truly classic screenplays like Genevieve and The Ladykillers before returning to Hollywood for It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) and going on to another in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming!(1966). Carl Foreman was writing Champion, Home of the Brave, Young Man With a Horn, The Men, High Noon, A Hatful of Rain — all worthy, topical subjects — before settling for the epic if-somewhat-bloated war movies Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone. Who would have thought he would be found resorting to cribbing from another screenwriter — Rose — just at the peak of his reputation?
I’d long since forgotten the gist of MacKenna’s Gold unlike It’s a Mad Mad… World, that I first saw when I was eight but have watched a few times since. Now, having just watched the western right through for the first time since 1969, the formula format is far too obvious to miss. Both stories are centered on the search for a lost treasure told of by a dying old man. In both the rumor spreads until multiple factions join the search — in the western, a marshal, bandidos, Indians, townspeople, cavalry — and run across each other in a game of attrition, picking each other off. Old partnerships are summarily dissolved too, as when Telly, as a cavalry sergeant, shoots two of his own men in cold blood in his lust for gold. The dust-ups are way funnier in the comedy, between Terry-Thomas & wife Dorothy Provine, father-in-law Milton Berle & wife Ethel Merman, along with the expert hijinks of Jonathan Winters, Sid Caesar & wife Edie Adams, Phil Silvers, Dick Shawn, Paul Ford, Buddy Hackett, Mickey Rooney and many more.
It strikes me there’s nothing expert at all in MacKenna’s Gold aside from maybe a knife vs belt duel between Sharif and Peck (he’s helped by Camilla) — attractively choreographed, probably worked out themselves. No thanks to Foreman or Thompson. Note that this takes place between two other pointless pieces of business: climbing up a sheer thousand foot cliff, then climbing down again to fetch their horses. Maybe I should have left my teen illusions of a classic western intact…