‘See how the west was FUN’ says the poster. Except we can’t really, the film is a superlong super production in Ultra Panavision 70. There are various versions, 35mm and 70mm, the longest being 165 minutes, replete with overture and intermission, and it’s neither funny nor exciting enough to support such a length.
Burt Lancaster, now over 50 is cast as Colonel Thaddeus Gearhart, the father of a grown daughter (Pamela Tiffin), engaged to one of his underlings (Robert Hutton) but taken up with the combination of women’s liberation and the temperance movement preached by the very popular Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick), who preaches that women can only be free from patriarchy and equal to men once men stop being enslaved to the demon drink. This poses a bit of a problem as the Colonel’s forces are meant to accompany 40 wagons of whisky to Denver, who’s running short and afraid of running dry once winter sets and travel rendered impossible. Thus the women accompany the army, the owner of the whisky (Brian Keith), the Denver town drunks lead by a very funny Donald Pleasance, and various tribes of native peoples who are after the whisky for themselves. It’s all meant to be funny but all that ‘poking fun’ at Indians and Feminists often crosses the line into offensiveness. That Martin Landau is cast as a greedy Indian Chief and that the role is just a patronising punch line to many of the situations is all you need to know to understand what I mean.
The film is shot in Ultra Panavision 70, some of the shots of horses and caravans amidst the great outdoors are truly spectacular. There is a consistency of tone established by a voice-over, often verbally ironising what one sees on screen. Donald Pleasance has some lovely moments as an oracle who can only foresee the future with the aid of whisky, with his sky-blue eyes lighting up amidst the dirt of his face every time he has a vision. It’s a dreamy, delirious and affectionate turn. One of the few things in this film that does actually work. Lastly, I think the film is also worth seeing for the insertion of a then nascent second-wave feminist movement into the Western genre, almost certainly a response to the emerging movement in the States at that point, but which is rare enough for me to want to include the clips below:
The sign ‘Women Can Remake the World’, the singing, Robert Hutton’s reactions, all are pleasurable. ‘If we are to enjoy equal rights with men then we are to respect him and if we are to respect him we must save him from himself and the poison of alcoholic spirits. Do you agree?’ says Cora/Lee Remick. Emancipation, Freedom for Women, Women Can Remake the World: These are phrases not normally heard in a Western. The singing of the Hymn of the Republic then wraps this feminism in the flag and inserts it into a narrative of the founding of the US, gives it a history, represents the First Wave so to speak, except it’s a comic one, played for laughs, though the women are not as offensively the butt of jokes as the Native Peoples or the Irishmen threatening to strike.
In the clip above you can see Burt Lancaster’s reaction to Lee Remick’s discourse: ‘Our enemy has two heads, first the enslavement of women by men and secondly the enslavement of men by the remorseless tyrant alcohol. We must reach out for freedom and tear this tyrant from the lips of men.’ The cutting always returns to Lancasters’ reaction, which the audience is asked to identify with, particularly as his daughter has joined up with the cause. And when the women decide to march along with the wagons to Denver, the Colonels’s underling asks, ‘What are we to do Sir? What happens if we run into Indians?’ ‘I pray for the Indians,’ says the Colonel.