1969 was arguably the year Hollywood fully embraced the revisionist western. In addition to Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, there was True Grit, Tell Them Willy Boy is Here, Death of a Gunfighter, and Midnight Cowboy. As well as playing with notions of ‘the cowboy’ and ‘the West’, they contained more stylised violence, more sex and stories that overtly fed off the cynicism and disillusionment of America’s war in Vietnam and domestic racial strife. Released in May that year, Mackenna’s Gold straddles the divide between the classic big studio western and its revisionist successors. It is also a story filled with supernatural elements, in which humans are haunted not only by spirits guarding a lost canyon full of gold but by their own greed and paranoia.
Mackenna (Gregory Peck), a former gold prospector and gambler, now marshal of a remote desert territory in the US southwest, is tracking an old Apache man, Prairie Dog (Eduardo Ciannelli), who has been attacking prospectors. Mackenna is shot at and in turn shoots Prairie Dog. The old man dies but not before Mackenna finds a map on him that supposedly shows the way to a secret canyon lined with gold, which he burns after memorising. Suave but vicious Mexican outlaw, John Colorado (Egyptian actor, Omar Sharif, as one of the film’s many ethic appropriations) captures Mackenna. Colorado and his men have also been trailing Prairie Dog in the hope of securing the map, and promise to keep Mackenna alive if he leads them to the gold.
Colorado’s gang are a mix of white and Mexican criminals and renegade Apaches, including Hesh-Ke (Julie Newmar) and Hashita (Ted Cassidy). They have another prisoner, Inga (Swedish actress Carmilla Sparv), whose abuse at the hands of the bandits is obliquely hinted at, one of many aspects to signal the film’s pre-revisionist nature. Inga and Mackenna are instantly attracted to each other, a source of homicidal anger for Hesh-Ke, who is the marshal’s former lover and still has feelings for him.
Colorado forms an uneasy alliance with a group of local townspeople who have also heard about the gold, an assortment of adventurers, so-called respectable businessmen, a religious maniac, and an old blind man (Edward G Robinson), who claims to have seen the canyon before the Apaches burned his eyes out. Complicating the situation further, the gold seekers are being chased by a detachment of US cavalry, led by Sergeant Tibbs (Telly Savalas) and the Apaches. Numerous ambushes, murders, doublecrosses and betrayals leave only Hesh, Hachita, Inga, Mackenna, Colorado and Tibbs alive by the time they reach the canyon.
Based on a novel by Will Henry, Carl Foreman penned the script. A former communist, black listed by HUAC, Foreman also wrote the 1952 western High Noon. Director J Lee Thompson was at the top of his game in the early 1960s with films such as The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Cape Fear (1962), but his star was fading by the late 1960s. Despite this, he gives the large cast, which also includes Lee J Cobb, Burgess Meredith, Eduardo Ciannelli, Eli Wallach, Keenan Wynn, and Anthony Quayle, a tight narrative focus while making the most of the tensions: Colorado versus Mackenna; Colorado’s gang versus each other; the gold seekers versus the cavalry and the Apaches; the clash between Hesh-Ke and Inga for Mackenna’s affections.
The film’s old Hollywood pedigree is clearly signalled by Peck, in a role reportedly passed on by Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood; Sharif, at the height of his fame after Funny Girl earlier in 1968, and Doctor Zhivago (1965); Savalas; and Robinson, Quinn, Ciannelli and Cobb, the last three approaching the end of their big screen careers. Familiar to audiences as Catwoman in the television series, Batman, Newmar had been soldiering away at small television roles since the early 1950s, and Cassidy played Lurch in the Addams Family. The film does have some very modern flourishes, however, including a semi nude swimming scene involving Hesh-Ke, somewhat daring for its time, in which she tries to drown Inga, a score by Quincy Jones, and a theme song sung by Puerto Rican singer, Jose Feliciano.
But it is the supernatural elements that make Mackenna’s Gold so interesting. The film begins with a voiceover about the Apache legend of the canyon, accompanied by magnificent aerial shots of the locations in Utah and Arizona where it was filmed, a mountainous, dry, grim, landscape, fraught with danger. These shots are implicitly through the eyes of a buzzard, part of the legend, and the birds appear in the sky, perhaps as watchful spirits, throughout the film. Prairie Dog is a self-appointed guardian of the canyon and after he dies, it is strongly inferred that he joins the various Apache spirits who guard it.
While not clearly articulated, Prairie Dog’s attempts to protect the gold are associated with the deeper destruction of his culture by white settlers. This explains why, even though they are criminals alienated from their traditional ways, the Apaches in Colorado’s gang remain in the thrall of the myth of the canyon. They insist on taking Prairie Dog’s body with them on their search for it, so he can be buried in tribal ground. When they eventually locate the canyon, Hachita turns on Colorado, saying that the spirits told him in the night to protect the gold from all non-Apaches. Colorado kills Hachita, but no sooner do they enter the canyon, filled with gold, than it collapses around them, again, it is inferred, the work of the guardian spirits. As Mackenna, Colorado and Inga scramble to safety, Prairie Dog’s face is shown superimposed above the crumbling ruins.
Old Adams, the only white man to have seen the canyon and lived, is viewed by the gold-hungry townspeople as some sort of savant but is actually a portent of doom that leads them to their death. There is also a remarkable scene when Mackenna and the other survivors wait for the rising sun to hit the rock in a certain way, and show them the secret entrance to the canyon, momentarily blinded by a psychedelic, almost otherworldly wave of colours, as the sun reflects off the deposits of gold.
Although the arch-sceptic, Mackenna seems unnerved by all the talk of the canyon’s spiritual guardians, he is more fearful of the human lust for gold and what it can drive human beings to do. The corrupting influence of gold, another embodiment of white frontier violence, is referenced at several points in the film. ‘Young warriors want gold like white man,’ laments Prairie Dog before he dies. ‘The Apache have changed,’ say Colorado. ‘They’re beginning to think like white men now. Some of the young ones figure they got more use for the gold than those old spirits.’ The lust for gold takes on a mystical force of its own. It makes Tibbs murder two of his own men, and a group of petit bourgeois small businessmen undertake a dangerous enterprise, which they are completely ill equipped to handle. ‘You can’t keep gold a secret,’ says one of them. ‘It travels in the air.’ Even Inga is momentarily infected by gold lust.
Henry’s book was based on the legend of the Lost Adams Diggings, a fabled gold canyon, as well as tales involving gold and silver told by the Apache and Yaqui Indians. Gold fever featured in a number of westerns. In Lust For Gold (1949), it involved the search for a lost gold mine. The Walking Hills, released the same year, saw a group of individuals come together to look for a lost wagon train of gold. A humorous depiction, Support Your Local Sheriff, released earlier in 1969, sees James Garner as a sheriff trying to maintain order in a town thrown into chaos as a result of the gold rush. Although not strictly a western, John Houston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) is perhaps the best articulation of gold mania in its depiction of a group of prospectors driven to murder through their lust for gold.
Perhaps because it was neither completely a Hollywood western in the classic sense or a fully-fledged revisionist take on the genre able to latch onto shifting audience demographics and tastes in the late 1960s, Mackenna’s Gold did poorly in the US. Strangely, it was a hit in the Soviet Union, parts of central Asia, and in the Indian subcontinent. According to a 2014 article by Kaushik Bhaumik in The Indian Quarterly, Mackenna’s Gold was among the top grossing Hollywood films in India until the 1990s. It showed in cinemas across India until the 1980s and was remade by Bollywood director Harish Shah in 1988, as Zalzala. Bhaumik links its popularity to India’s daku genre of bandit films that took hold in the 1970s. He also makes a connection between the frontier violence of the film and the economic and social upheaval then taking place in much of India. ‘The film’s depiction of an honest man’s struggle against men “who will do anything for gold”, to quote the title song, in a landscape that looks sucked dry by human greed went down well in an India that was beginning to groan under the wider weight of rampant corruption in business, politics and governance.’