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Across the Wide Missouri

26 Nov

I’ve already featured a number of films that highlighted the trend in 1950s westerns towards a more sympathetic and mature view of the various native peoples and their relationships with the westward moving settlers. William Wellman’s contribution to this phenomenon can be seen in Across the Wide Missouri (1951), where his setting of the story in the 1820s and its focus on trappers and mountain men, as opposed to the later arrival of large groups of settlers, allows him to sidestep political issues and tell a more human tale. Wellman’s movie suffered from some overzealous editing that frankly hacked his work to pieces and leaves the version available to us today an imperfect one. The director was greatly displeased by this, virtually disowning the film, yet what remains is still a beautifully shot work that has some emotional punch, in spite of what was left on the cutting room floor.

The story is centered around Flint Mitchell (Clark Gable), a rough and ready mountain man and trapper, whose adventures we follow in the form of the narrated reminiscences of his grown-up son – voiced by an uncredited Howard Keel. Mitchell is in the process of putting together an expedition to head into Blackfoot country in search of lucrative beaver pelts. With most of the arrangements in place, Mitchell catches the attention of a young Blackfoot girl, Kamiah (Maria Elena Marques), who has been brought up by the Nez Perce. Despite being amused by her advances, he initially brushes her off. It’s only when he learns of the plans of Brecan (John Hodiak), a Scot who has become so enamored of the Blackfoot way of life that he’s literally “gone native” and been integrated into their tribe, to bring her back to her own people that he changes his tune. Kamiah is the granddaughter of Bear Ghost (Jack Holt), the tribe’s elder, and Mitchell sees an opportunity to gain favour. Of course the only way to take the girl from the Nez Perce is to marry her and bring her back as his wife. While Mitchell isn’t averse to the idea, he still regards Kamiah primarily as a bargaining chip at this stage. In the course of the long trek though he finds himself genuinely falling for her charms. Mitchell doesn’t speak a word of her language, nor she his, and all but the most basic communication has to be conducted through the medium of an interpreter, an old French trapper by the name of Pierre (Adolphe Menjou). One of the interesting aspects of the film is the fact that the Indian characters, and the many of the French too, speak exclusively in their own tongue, lending a touch of authenticity to it all. With much of the focus of the middle section of the movie on the arduous journey undertaken by Mitchell and his fellow hunters, it’s basically an outdoor adventure yarn with a romance woven into it. Although the adventurous elements occupy a lot of the running time, the real heart of the film comes from the interracial romance and the gradual development of cultural understanding that accompanies it. However, few tales succeed without the introduction of some kind of conflict, and that’s provided here by the appearance of a rising Blackfoot warrior, Ironshirt (Ricardo Montalban), whose enmity with Mitchell leads to the film taking a tragic turn at the end.

My father told me that for the first time, he saw these Indians as he had never seen them before – as people with homes and traditions and ways of their own. Suddenly they were no longer savages. They were people who laughed and loved and dreamed.

The above words, spoken by the narrator after Mitchell has come upon the Blackfoot settlement, might seem to be stating the obvious these days. However, they are quite potent when viewed in historical perspective. When Across the Wide Missouri was produced it was by no means a given to see some respect granted to Native American customs and ways of life. While it’s disingenuous to say that westerns before the 50s were uniformly dismissive of Indian culture, those that tended towards the kind of sympathetic treatment that grew in popularity as the decade went on were certainly thin on the ground. One could of course argue that the inclusion of the villainous character of Ironshirt shows the movie reverting to timeworn genre stereotypes, but that’s both lazy and a bit of a cheap shot. In the first place, the responsibility for the bad blood that arises can be traced back to both sides. Furthermore, it would be a misrepresentation of the times to suggest that everything was harmonious and that the thought of expelling perceived intruders from their territory never crossed the minds of the Indians. Finally, from a storytelling perspective, the presence of this character and his actions are a large part of what gives the film its emotional impact at the climax.

Across the Wide Missouri must rate as a huge missed opportunity for William Wellman, though the director cannot be held responsible for the failings. The film had the makings of being one of the great frontier epics, a sweeping and intelligent analysis of cultural symbiosis. However, it appears that MGM bosses allowed themselves to be swayed by negative pre-release feedback and cut the movie down (allegedly from over two hours originally) to its current sub-80 minute running time. As such, we’re left with a slightly disjointed effort that nevertheless hints at what might have been. Despite the choppy rhythm, the development of the relationship between Mitchell and his Blackfoot maiden is a touch abrupt, there’s still a lot to admire. Wellman kept his cameras mainly outdoors to capture the splendor of the Colorado locations and, as a result of both the broadly comedic interludes and the incorporation of the landscape into the narrative, produced a film that’s reminiscent of the work of John Ford. Leaving aside the plot, the picture is a visual delight – William Mellor’s cinematography is frequently breathtaking and never less than beautiful.

Clark Gable had what could be termed a fairly lean run in westerns, with Raoul Walsh’s The Tall Men probably being his best showing in the genre. Across the Wide Missouri offered him a strong role though, one that played to his strengths and exploited his trademark roguish charm. In spite of his frequent casting in romantic parts, he had a certain goofball quality which, along with his inherent machismo, made him the ideal choice for a socially clumsy trapper. In addition, he performed very well in the handful of tender and reflective moments; no doubt he drew on his own sense of personal loss for the climactic scenes, and there’s a real dignity in the way he consoles his grief-stricken bride after the murder of her grandfather. As Kamiah, Mexican actress Maria Elena Marques is cute, spirited and gutsy. She barely utters a word of English throughout the film, save a few efforts in heavily accented pidgin, yet her feelings at any given point are abundantly clear. Her presence really drives the picture and gives it its purpose, and it’s refreshing to see the matter of fact acceptance of her relationship with Gable. After a promising start, John Hodiak’s career dipped swiftly and he died a very young man; this film was arguably his last memorable role before the decline set in fully. He had a dour thoughtfulness about him, a withdrawn sense that seems to match the character he plays ideally. There’s no real explanation given as to why Brecan left his own society to become assimilated into the Blackfoot tribe, and the actor’s own distance and remoteness adds to the air of mystery surrounding the character. Ricardo Montalban’s Ironshirt is a completely undeveloped part, although that may be due to the heavy cuts imposed by the studio, and he serves basically as a bogeyman figure. As for the supporting cast, the best work is done by Adolphe Menjou and Alan Napier.

Across the Wide Missouri is now available in the US via the Warner Archive, and also on pressed disc in Europe from Warner Brothers in France. I have the French release of the film and I have to say the transfer is a very good one. The Technicolor hues come out very strongly, which is vital in a movie so heavily dependent on its outdoor photography and imagery, and the print is in pretty good condition. There are no extra features offered, and the French subtitles can be disabled from the language menu. In the final analysis, I’d have to say Across the Wide Missouri is a disappointing film. In doing so, I’m not saying it’s a poor movie, nor am I implying any criticism of the cast and crew. I feel there was a work of greater significance and cohesion here had the scissors not been applied so drastically. As it stands, this picture has fallen by the wayside somewhat when 50s westerns are discussed. Wellman was capable of producing work of considerable depth when the material was right, and the ingredients for something special were in place here. And that’s what disappoints me; we’re only seeing a fraction of the director’s vision. Even so, the movie is not without interest and is worth viewing for its visuals and its progressive storyline.

Just as an aside, it’s five years to the day since I first started blogging back on the old FilmJournal site. Time certainly flies.

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33 Comments

Posted by on November 26, 2012 in 1950s, Clark Gable, Westerns, William Wellman

 

33 responses to “Across the Wide Missouri

  1. hawkswill

    November 26, 2012 at 1:00 am

    Well, first Colin, Happy 5th Anniversary! I hope to have one in about 5 years!
    Excellent post on this movie I have never heard of.
    Very sorry to hear about the film on the cutting room floor, as this is the time period of the American Mountain Man, which I am so much a part of,have studied, done it as they did, etc. I am very curious to see if the REAL way of the time period is displayed properly besides the storyline……very few films do. Thanks for the heads up. I have been following your advice and have not been disappointed as of yet.
    Oh, my friend joined your blog. After I reminded him, he told me he had been impressed and already had. Hope when I get mine up and running, should you like it, you will recommend me as I have you! I will get this movie…can’t wait to see if the “ways” of the men and Indians compare to what was reality in those times. Once again, a Big Happy one for you, KEITH

     
    • Colin

      November 26, 2012 at 8:27 am

      Thanks Keith. I’m certainly not qualified to pronounce one way or the other on the accuracy of the portrayals in historical terms. I do think that the way the characters speak their own native languages, the fact that mastery of the weaponry of the times is highlighted etc. indicates at least an intention to achieve some kind of authenticity.

      Thanks for passing the word as far as the site is concerned, and I look forward to seeing how your own develops.

       
      • hawkswill

        November 27, 2012 at 3:52 pm

        My, but this really brought out the comments…cudos to you Colin! Since I am new to most of the directors other than Pappy, Walsh Mcloglin, and a couple of others, I wonder if you know why the others didn’t just do as Pappy did…..”edit with the camera”. I am sure there is a simple answer, but..you don’t learn if you don’t ask, so I don’t mind looking “wet behind the ears” in order to get my answer! Also, you have interested me in this director…thanks, Keith

         
        • Colin

          November 27, 2012 at 4:00 pm

          Keith, I guess the idea of self-editing as you shoot is only effective up to a point. Studio pictures were ultimately contract jobs and the director, whatever his reputation, was still bound by the terms of the guys who wrote his paycheck. Basically, if the studios didn’t like what they saw, it was their movie and they could cut it any way they liked – even bury it if they thought it was lousy.
          Even Ford, as Sergio mentioned upthread, saw My Darling Clementine go under the knife, so to speak.

           
  2. Blake Lucas

    November 26, 2012 at 7:20 am

    As usual, you’ve covered it well. Although I’ve seen it several times now, I find it painful to watch knowing what happened. It’s evident Wellman cared a lot about it, but cutting a movie to practically half the intended length is just too much. What’s there now are a fair number of fine scenes and moments that indicate something that may well have been superb in the form intended.

    I’m posting just to add what might be taken, in a way, as two rays of sunshine that followed soon after ACROSS THE WIDE MISSOURI.

    First, the theme of trappers traveling into Blackfoot country, the beauty of the meeting of cultures as well as an interracial love story (actually complex as it’s a triangle), came through magnificently in THE BIG SKY (1952), directed by Howard Hawks. This actually did suffer cuts too just after it went into first release, but not so much and it played well even at the two hours most people know, and now the original version (almost 20 minutes longer) has been restored and it’s even better. For me, and I believe for many, one of the great Westerns.

    Second, and this is another of the great Westerns, is WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951), which was Wellman’s next film. It’s a different subject, but one just as good–and remains unusual–and Wellman is in peak form in his direction; this time (and it’s the same studio–MGM), he had no interference and the beautifully paced movie plays exactly as intended, and again has great cinematography by Mellor but this time in black and white. So this wound up being Wellman’s best Western, but he was a major contributor to the genre, and I’d give plenty of points also to the beautiful YELLOW SKY (1948), which as I recall you’ve written about already (now I’m thinking you had a nice piece on WESTWARD THE WOMEN too–and I’ll look back for those).

     
    • Colin

      November 26, 2012 at 8:39 am

      It is incredibly frustrating to think of what Wellman might have presented us with, isn’t it Blake? Butchering a film in this manner, and I can’t think of another word for the removal of so much footage, has to impact on the pacing and development of the story. I think the fact that, in spite of the cutting, what remains of the movie is still worthwhile says a lot about the quality of Wellman and Mellor’s work.

      There were certainly other good movies that touched on similar themes and The Big Sky, and I’ve only seen the cut version of this, is excellent.

       
  3. Blake Lucas

    November 26, 2012 at 7:34 am

    Sure enough, you had written on both, and also THE OX-BOW INCIDENT and TRACK OF THE CAT (I remember being in the discussion of that one), taking a positive view of all these films. Plainly, this is a director whose work you consider worth writing about,

     
    • Colin

      November 26, 2012 at 8:45 am

      I like Wellman’s work a lot Blake. I find his movies are always interesting in visual terms; he seemed to be keen on trying out new techniques and ways of enhancing the filmmaking and storytelling process. Also, I feel his work tends to strike the right balance between character development (the portrayals of women in his movies is generally very strong) and action. Generally, there’s a grown-up, confident and purposeful feel to his films that I find very attractive.

       
  4. Cavershamragu

    November 26, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    Congrats on the 5 years mate – in the world of blog that really is really impressive and yours is a really terrific resource, so thanks very much.

    It hadn’t occurred to me until now that Gable only made a handful of Westerns – really interesting. I’ve come to appreciate Wellman more and more as the years have gone by as I’ve seen just how broad his repertoire actually was (he directed Gable in one of his first major supporting roles in the pre-code melodrama NIGHT NURSE). Do you think the keel voice-over was added afterwards as a way to stitch the re-edited narrative together?

     
    • Colin

      November 26, 2012 at 8:44 pm

      Thanks for that. I can’t quite believe I’ve been churning this stuff out for five years – doesn’t seem that long. It’s rarely felt like a chore though and that helps. Also, I’ve been blessed in a way to receive regular feedback which does mean an awful lot and acts as an encouragement, without it can feel like you’re posting in a void.

      Wellman’s work is indeed wide ranging and richly varied. If you want the lowdown on Wellman’s early work I strongly recommend checking out Judy’s page on him with links to her articles on his movies.

      I think Gable must have the lightest western resumé of any of the golden age action stars. As regards the Keel voice-over, I just can’t be sure, can’t find any definite evidence one way or the other. I certainly think it has all the hallmarks of a hasty repair job, but I may be completely wrong. It would be good to get some confirmation either way.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        November 26, 2012 at 8:48 pm

        Thanks for the fascinating links. As a massive Orson Welles fan I’m used to having to make do with studio left-overs but is there anything more frustrating than the tantalising knowledge that things could have been so much better? Speaking of which, the blog’s an inspiration chum – keep it up, please!

         
        • Colin

          November 26, 2012 at 8:57 pm

          I know exactly what you mean. I’m a massive fan of both Welles and Peckinpah, and it’s such a pain to think how their work was hacked about by others. Though, as Wellman’s movie proves, this wasn’t confined to just those guys.

          And that’s really kind of you.

           
          • Cavershamragu

            November 26, 2012 at 9:03 pm

            I really do admire directors like Wellman and Huston who, for the most part, managed to keep working and get a lot of individual work made despite so much interference. Mind you, ever someone as successful as Ford had serious brushed even with MY DARLING CLEMENTINE – have you seen the alternate edit? Until the region1 DVD came out I had no idea that parts of the finished film were directed by Loyd Bacon …

             
            • Colin

              November 26, 2012 at 9:18 pm

              Yes, I’ve seen both cuts of My Darling Clementine. I understand why Zanuck wanted it tightened up but feel that the ending in particular suffers in the edit.
              Removing half of the movie, as seems to have been the case with Across the Wide Missouri, constitutes major surgery though.

               
              • Cavershamragu

                November 26, 2012 at 10:20 pm

                I agree that the ending is the real sticking point of the two versions. What happened to Wellman sounds very similar to what Huston went through at Metro with RED BADGE OF COURAGE

                 
                • Colin

                  November 26, 2012 at 10:23 pm

                  Which reminds me that there’s another movie I need to add to my collection. And me a big Audie Murphy fan too – the shame.

                   
                  • Cavershamragu

                    November 26, 2012 at 10:31 pm

                    Well worth reading the Lillian Ross book, PICTURE, on the making (and unmaking) of the film if you haven;t already done so. Speaking of Murphy, posting on THE QUIET AMERICAN in a couple of weeks after getting that double-bill DVD you recommended with FOREIGN INTRIGUE (not by Sheldon Leonard – sheesh …)

                     
                    • Colin

                      November 27, 2012 at 7:48 am

                      No, I haven’t read the book, so that’s another one to keep an eye out for.

                      Looking forward to hearing what you have to say on The Quiet American.

                       
                    • Cavershamragu

                      November 27, 2012 at 8:44 am

                      I really recommend the Ross, a remarkably unvarnished look at moviemaking at metro circa 1950. I hope to get QUIET AMERICAN in before the hols but my goodness how quickly one’s festive calendar fills up!

                       
  5. billyriel1971

    November 27, 2012 at 3:58 am

    Good of you to draw attention to another Western beyond the standard cow-puncher fare, Colin. The mountain man era is a very intriguing one in terms of relationships between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples.

    This may seem like a strange question, ha….but I haven’t seen the entire film….does Gable ever get any hint of a beard or does he remain clean-shaven throughout? I cannot claim that all trappers/mountain men of the early 19th century had beards but realism but would dictate some facial growth besides the “Gable mustache” at some point, right? Again, perhaps I digress, ha, but the spell is often broken with such (or lack of) details!

    Take care,
    Chad
    http://www.westernsreboot.com

     
    • Colin

      November 27, 2012 at 8:04 am

      Hi Chad. The movie is quite interesting on the relationships between the two groups, and even within the groups themselves.

      As for the question, I reckon that’s a fair enough one as it relates to the authenticity or lack of it in the movie. The short answer is yes; Gable never grows a full on beard, but he does get reasonably “hairy” and unkempt for a time. In fact, his new bride even sends him packing on her wedding night due to her disgust at his drunkenness and grubby appearance. Of course, his friends ensure that he’s sufficiently sobered up and barbered to return.

       
  6. Jeff Flugel

    November 27, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    I’m glad to see you cover this one, Colin, as I saw it many years ago on TV and was enchanted by it. Recently I caught up with it again and the choppy nature of its butchered print that you reference can be clearly seen. I still think it’s a very enjoyable film with much to recommend it, and its particular subgenre, the mountain man movie, is a rich vein that has only been infrequently mined in film. I agree with you that Wellman’s original cut, judging from what’s left, might have been one of the greats. The chutzpah of these studio execs, thinking they knew better than Wellman when it comes to putting a film together.

    It does seem a it odd, now that you mention it, that Gable made relatively few westerns. He seems a natural fit in them. He’s very good in this and the wonderful THE TALL MEN. I suppose THE MISFITS is a kind of western, if you squint a certain way, but it doesn’t really count. Neither does THE KING AND FOUR QUEENS.

     
    • Colin

      November 27, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      Thanks Jeff. I guess the more individual the director, the greater the likelihood of running into conflict with studio bosses. It is grating though.

      I reckon The Misfits is a modern western, and an undervalued work. The King and Four Queens is a piece of fluff really, but entertaining enough all the same. Honky Tonk seems to be classed as a western too, although I’ve never seen it and can’t comment.
      However, on the basis of this film and his picture with Walsh, I think it’s a pity Gable wasn’t more prolific in the genre.

       
      • Jeff Flugel

        November 28, 2012 at 7:31 am

        You’re right, Colin, in praising THE MISFITS, which is a really terrific film, and can certainly be taken as a “modern” western. I think that film contains some of Gable’s finest acting work, by the way (ditto Marilyn Monroe). I haven’t seen HONKY TONK or THE KING AND FOUR QUEENS yet. I suppose in some ways one could consider CALL OF THE WILD as a sort of western, though obviously it;s more of a period adventure piece. One day I plan to cover THE TALL MEN, as I greatly admire that picture. Thanks again for the response and the terrific review!

         
        • Colin

          November 28, 2012 at 8:10 am

          Call of the Wild is a difficult one to categorize, isn’t it? Myself, I’d probably go with the adventure movie label.

          The Misfits is a strange movie, yet a very good one. The story it tells is full of regret and both that and the real life aftermath have always had an impact on me. It was a fantastic performance for Gable to bow out on though.

           
          • Jeff Flugel

            November 28, 2012 at 10:00 pm

            By the way, Colin – a belated congratulations for your 5 years of blogging! Keep up the great work!

             
            • Colin

              November 29, 2012 at 8:19 am

              Thanks Jeff – I appreciate that.

               
  7. billyriel1971

    November 27, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    Thanks for the follow-up, Colin. Such details reflect the care taken by a production, in my opinion….as long as an actor’s ego doesn’t get in the way, ha.

    You may be interested to know that I am working by way thru Riding Shotgun (1954)….the De Toth-directed film starring Randolph Scott. Two things have caught my eye thus far….the interesting camera angles at times and the vividness of the color. Not surprisingly, Scott is simply solid.

    Take care,
    Chad
    http://www.westernsreboot.com

     
    • Colin

      November 27, 2012 at 4:03 pm

      Scott’s work with de Toth is really quite good. It tends to be overshadowed by the later, and unquestionably better, films made with Boetticher. Taken on their own merits though, they’re pretty enjoyable.

       
  8. Laura

    November 29, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    Thanks for a very interesting post on a Wellman movie I’ve not yet seen. What a great cast! It makes one wish the original footage would miraculously be discovered so viewers could see what Wellman originally intended.

    Congratulations on five great years! Thanks for your thoughtful writing, which has provided many ideas for new-to-me movies to see, as well as most enjoyable revisits with old favorites.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

     
    • Colin

      November 29, 2012 at 6:45 pm

      Firstly Laura, thanks very much – and particularly for all the links to this place you posted over the years.

      The cast is indeed impressive and I too would love if, somehow, the cut footage were to show up one day. Well, we can always hope. :)

       
  9. Judy

    December 6, 2012 at 8:47 am

    Sorry to be late in commenting on this, Colin – a great piece. I saw this on TV a while back and totally agree with you that it looks as if it could have been a fine Western epic if only it hadn’t been butchered by the studio – such a shame that MGM executives hacked Wellman’s work like this. There are still some fine scenes in what remains, with the sympathy for the Native Americans that you trace here, and it all looks glorious, but it could possibly have been a work to rank alongside his greatest if it hadn’t been cut to hell.

    I’d understood the Keel voiceover was added to try to bridge the gaps made by the cuts – the TCM site and the imdb both say so, although neither of them gives firm evidence… TCM says “Voice-over narration, spoken by Howard Keel as the adult “Chip Mitchell,” is heard intermittently throughout the film. According to a December 17, 1947 Hollywood Reporter news item, M-G-M originally optioned Bernard DeVoto’s novel as a vehicle for Spencer Tracy. According to modern sources, the narration was added after principal photography was completed at the suggestion of M-G-M producer Sam Zimbalist.”
    The imdb says that Wellman was so upset by the cuts that he never saw the movie as released, quoting him as saying: “”I’ve not seen it, and I never will.”

    I wonder what Tracy would have been like in the lead role – Gable makes it so much his own that it is hard to imagine.

     
    • Colin

      December 6, 2012 at 8:56 am

      Thanks Judy. I can’t seem to locate any hard evidence one way or the other on that narration either. It certainly seems like an afterthought to prevent confusion over the timeline of events.

      I guess Tracy could have played the role of Mitchell but Gable had the right qualities as far as I can see.

       

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