Combustible Celluloid
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With: Kirk Douglas, Dewey Martin, Elizabeth Threatt, Arthur Hunnicutt, Buddy Baer, Steven Geray, Henri Letondal, Hank Worden, Jim Davis
Written by: Dudley Nichols, based on a novel by A.B. Guthrie Jr.
Directed by: Howard Hawks
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 141
Date: 08/05/1952

The Big Sky (1952)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Fur Their Eyes Only

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This Western is one of Howard Hawks' least-known films, perhaps because it was butchered by the studio and left for dead. According to Peter Bogdanovich's interview with Hawks, the movie was doing big business in its 141-minute version, and greedy studio heads decided that they could squeeze in one more show per day if they cut 20 minutes from it. They did, and the film flopped. Today, a restored version exists, but the excised footage was taken from a 16mm print, and the quality doesn't exactly match.

No matter. This is a rousing, good-time adventure tale with two Hawksian buddies making their way through the untamed wild. Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) has just finished delivering a corpse to its final resting place and Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) is looking for his uncle, Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt, who narrates). They get a job traveling upriver through treacherous territory to trade furs with the elusive Blackfoot Indians. Their secret weapon is "Teal Eye" (Elizabeth Threatt), a Blackfoot princess who has been kidnapped and is being returned to her people. Of course, both men fall for her, even though their true relationship is with each other.

At the same time, the greedy, evil owners of a fur company try everything to stop them, but Hawks presents all this in relaxed episodes rather than a constantly thrusting plot. To that end, Douglas is always smiling -- despite the fact that he's constantly getting wounded and injured. In one scene, he has his finger amputated, but the mood is quasi-comical.

The film also luxuriates in a kind of utopian vision of unspoiled America, and the rich, black-and-white cinematography by Russell Harlan received an Oscar nomination. Hunnicutt also received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. (Note: As of 2009, the film isn't available on DVD in the United States.)

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