Directed by William A. Wellman
Written by Talbot Jennings
It seems the vast majority of the westerns I have selected to be a part of this marathon have been star driven, which is to say that they are notable not for their director, although there have been and will be a few of those (Ford, Leone, etc.), but rather are notable for their leading men. And yes, I mean men, as there are so very few which feature women prominently, although there are a couple. With that in mind, Clark Gable is an old Hollywood actor whose name has not come up very much at all, but with Across the Wide Missouri, we not only get Gable, but we also get director William A. Wellman, a man who is two-for-two in his westerns thus far (The Ox-Bow Incident and Yellow Sky). Such a crossover should provide dividends, especially as we get a third western treat with this film: it’s a frontier western, a style we have not had much of. What could possibly go wrong?
Gable plays Flint Mitchell, a mountain man trapper who meets at Rendezvous every summer with his fellow trappers to trade, dance, get drunk and prepare for another season of trapping in the remote mountains. But this year, he hopes to make his way into Blackfoot territory, where he has heard of majestic scenery and endless trapping. But in order to infiltrate this hostile indian territory, he must make a treaty. In order to do so, he decides to take a Blackfoot wife named Kamiah (Maria Elena Marques). The two don’t much like each other at first, and obviously cannot communicate, but they soon begin to fall for each other, even while Flint makes enemies with a Blackfoot named Ironshirt (Ricardo Montalban).
Much like my thoughts on Only the Valiant before it, I found Across the Wide Missouri‘s gravest mistake was in its inability to tell any sort of compelling story. It’s a lot of nothing. The title and certainly the premise seem to suggest a fun adventure, but there is nothing all that fun about Across the Wide Missouri. At a svelte 78 minutes, it even feels as though this is merely the first act in the story. That’s how slim this film felt. We’re introduced to the trappers at Rendezvous, but I don’t get a sense of who they are, where they come from, why they’re there. The romance is completely manufactured and I don’t believe for a second in the chemistry between Gable and Marques. Even the stunning vistas seem muted and underutilized.
The film has some things going for it, but it seems Wellman is content on wasting them. The technicolor photography is one of them. I mentioned the vistas, and what a great opportunity to use stunning color to capture the frontier beauty of Montana and Idaho, where this film is set. We get fleeting glimpses, but I feel there was room for even more use of setting as part of the story being told. Maria Elena Marques, principly a Mexican actress, also seems wasted. She gives a good performance, I really liked her, and yet her character is so disappointing given the scenario. Mitchell makes her become his wife for financial gain, and she somehow comes to love this man. In many ways it reminded me of James Stewart and Debra Paget in Broken Arrow. The age difference is noticeable, and more than a little disturbing. This is a problematic relationship, not a romantic one.
Perhaps my recent string of bad luck with Westerns makes me dislike Across the Wide Missouri than I really ought to, but I was severely frustrated watching this film, hoping for so much more, hoping for any glimpse of worth, something to take away from the film, especially given my affinity for Wellman’s past two films in this marathon. But I had no such luck, and I fully recognize that my rating of this film may be influenced by the rather lackluster stretch I am currently experiencing, with film after film being a disappointment. Maybe this is the boiling point. Maybe it gets better after this. Perhaps there are beautiful vistas and bountiful land just over this mountain range. Perhaps.