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.