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Friday, May 15, 2020

The Surreal Ecstasy of Gold

The folly of lust for gold is a well-worn trope whatever the genre, but in no film is it explored quite so strangely as Mackenna's Gold (J. Lee Thompson), a 1969 western in which Gregory Peck (Mackenna) finds himself in a surreal, swiftly-moving landscape of shifting threats and alliances, with death, in the form of circles vultures and vast walls of stone standing in silent judgement, looming, waiting for its moment. 

It begins with two figures in the desert: Peck, as Marshall Mackenna, and an ancient Apache chief, Prairie Dog. Prairie Dog is clearly near death, and mistakes Mackenna for one of the bandits chasing him for a map to a legendary deposit of gold. He attempts to shoot Mackenna, but Mackenna defends himself, shooting the chief down. Mackenna attempts to save the old man, but the chief demurs, angrily accusing Mackenna of wanting the Apache gold. The Marshall, it seems, has a past as a gambler and prospector, but he's given up his sordid past and is trying to build a new life. 

The chief has a map to the gold, but Mackenna burns it, determined to get on with his new life. Unfortunately, men of ill will from Mackenna's past arrive, and with the map destroyed, they force Mackenna to use his memory of the map to lead them to the gold...

The plot is straightforward: Mackenna must lead the bandits through a gauntlet of hazards, including Apache hunting parties defending the gold, the US cavalry, and the desert itself. But the filmmakers' approach to the material makes this an atypical Western, one with the trappings of horror, fantasy, and high adventure films. There are point-of-view shots dragging the audience through dizzying chases on horseback. There's a rickety bridge crossing over an impossibly deep canyon, with the long shots accomplished with obvious miniatures. Julie Newmar is a beautiful, predatory shark-like creature who attempts nude underwater seduction and nude underwater murder. There are gorgeous vistas clearly shot on location juxtaposed with matte paintings. The small party of bandits Mackenna is leading grows to a horde, with so many major stars joining the proceedings - and shortly thereafter being killed off with almost comic speed. Occasionally, a narrator shows up to offer unnecessary commentary to the proceedings, but quits doing so at around the halfway point in the film. 

In the final act, in which the bedraggled survivors find the gold, is played out in a tone so ominous that the joy of the characters, their greedy delight captured in a sequence of still frames, serves only to heighten audience unease. And indeed it ends apocalyptically, with a disaster shot in such a way as to transform the film's heretofore dreamlike quality into that of a genuine runaway nightmare. 

There's a happy ending of a sort, but even that is laced with ambiguity; the backstories hinted at throughout the film are bookended by the promise of further adventure, as if this were the middle of a trilogy. 

Though played straight, the director's choices transform what should have been a straightforward western into something more akin to something Hitchcock and Bunuel might have created, had those two greats ever collaborated. 

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