With his truthful black and white adaptation on screen of the first part of A. B. Guthrie, Jr.’s book The Big Sky, Howard Hawks tells the story of a group of trappers who go up the Missouri river to trade fur with Blackfoot Indians in the early 1830s. Released in 1952, it is still considered as one of Hawks’ best productions.
The film opens with the dashing Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) and Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin) who meet in the strangest way, fighting in the forest and then becoming travelling companions. Along their journey to the nearest town, the two frontiersmen end up in jail where they find Boone’s uncle, Zeb Callaway (Arthur Hunnicut), an Indian trader. They get lucky when Jourdonnais (Steven Geray), a French captain who is friends with Zeb, comes to bail them out and takes them with him and his French crew on a 2000 mile boat expedition to trade goods with Blackfoot Indians. The trappers are also guided by another Indian, the amusing Poor Devil (Hank Worden). But dealing with the Indians won’t be easy, so Jourdonnais has his agenda more than prepared: he holds hostage a beautiful Blackfoot Indian woman, Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt), as a secret weapon that he will exchange against furs.
A touch of romance is added to the plot through the love triangle between Jim, Boone and the Indian princess, while the presence of another commercial company in competition with Jourdonnais’ troop gives a twist to the adventure.
Even though Hawks didn’t totally respect the novel’s storyline, the changes and choices he made were well received and appreciated. He surely knew how to express his passion for the winning of the West and for this key period of American History throughout his film. In addition to the fact that Hawks mastered the whole direction, the actors’ performance is impeccable and conveys the very essence of Guthrie’s story. The actors manage to express the fears and struggles that frontiersmen and other travelers might have experienced during this era of adventure and courage.
Likewise, he well captured the challenging living conditions of these men by giving a great overview of the magnificent nature and the wild landscapes that surrounded the Missouri with all the scenes mostly filmed outdoors. On top of that, he succeeded in adding a touch of humor to scenes that demonstrated how tough life could be during these expeditions. At some point, Jim’s partners get him drunk with bottles of whisky before cutting his rotten finger on a tree trunk in the middle of nowhere. Strange as it may seem, it is perhaps the funniest scene of the film.
Ranking among the classics of the genre, The Big Sky has been much acclaimed by such renowned films critics as Jonathan Rosenbaum, who chose it for his alternative list of the Top 100 American Films. The film was also nominated for two Academy Awards: for Best Supporting Actor (Arthur Hunnicut) and for Best Black and White Cinematography (Russel Harlan).
Hawks should also be rewarded for his excellent representation of America’s vast frontier that has inspired Western fictions. The initial spirit of these great expeditions throughout the Wild West is more than respected.
Hawks put on screen an insightful version of Guthrie’s novel by selecting meaningful facts and elements which give a true soul to The Big Sky. Don’t be afraid by the two hours running time: just embark on an adventure with authentic nineteenth-century frontiersmen.
The Big Sky (1952)
Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas)
Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin)
Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt)
Zeb Callaway (Arthur Hunnicutt)
Jourdonnais (Steven Geray)
Poor Devil (Hank Worden)
Romaine (Buddy Baer)
Streak (Jim Davis)
Labadie (Henri Letondal)
Chouquette (Robert Hunter)
Pascal (Booth Colman)
MacMasters (Paul Frees)
Moleface (Frank de Kova)
Longface (Guy Wilkerson)
Director: Howard Hawks
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols (based on the novel “The Big Sky” by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.)
Producer: Howard Hawks
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Distribution: R. K. O. Radio Pictures
Running time: 141 min.