Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews as I go through the process of making my own 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.
Week Eighty Three: The Big Sky
What a treat it was to finally see The Big Sky, the one remaining Howard Hawks Western I’d missed. For years, I’ve been waiting for a restoration by Criterion or at least some kind of DVD release. Having seen the film, I am even more confused why it hasn’t received such treatment. But when I saw a digital version available for purchase on Amazon, I couldn’t resist. What they have available hardly does justice to this epic Western. It’s colorized and the sound isn’t great but it’s a testament to the power of the picture that it holds up regardless.
Anyone expecting the rapid fire pace of dialog and action in other Hawks pictures need to readjust their expectations. This film is slow and deliberate. Though I’ve read this as a criticism from others, I actually enjoyed the pace and that the director takes his time with this incredible journey. It could be a double feature with the filmmaker’s Red River as it tracks another grand adventure across the U.S., this time on water instead of land. The relationship between Douglas and Dewey shares DNA with Wayne and Clift in that other picture, without the intense conflict and high stakes. Perhaps the reason that The Big Sky isn’t more heralded is the lack of those stakes; it’s more episodic in nature and realistic, following these men up the river as they encounter different obstacles. But Hawks avoids making a big deal out of anything, including the ending which is probably too subtle for most people to feel satisfied. There’s no grand lesson here, just a small arch about a man learning to take ownership of his actions.
Another reason I love this film is the representation of the French who can so often be portrayed by Hollywood in the most cliche way. They’re also usually untrustworthy villains but not here. In a refreshing choice, Hawks lets them speak in their own language throughout most of the picture and they work hand-in-hand with the American characters. Perhaps because he was in the same generation as Hemingway, Hawks didn’t see the French as adversaries the way Americans tend to nowadays. It reminds me of a movie I despise, The Revenant, and how inaccurate their portrayal of the “Coureurs de Bois” (early French traders) was, showing them to be evil towards the Natives when they had much better relations than others. This is a misrepresentation that I feel so strongly about that I hope to make my own film about these French pioneers in order to rectify the mistake. But I digress…
Last to note, the cinematography and action scenes of The Big Sky are a spectacle to watch. The on location shooting is astounding and it’s wonderful to see these men really pulling the boat, navigating the difficult river, and fighting their foes in a real environment. I hope one day I will be able to see these magnificent images in restored, glorious black and white. Until then, I recommend you add this to your list.
Seen on Amazon.