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Mackenna’s Gold (1969) May 30th, 2020

Is there a term for feeling ‘homesick’ for a place you’ve never lived? I’m feeling that way about Utah. Sigh, today I saw an alert that southern Utah was under an extreme heat warning. Temperatures between 103 and 107 are expected in all my favorite hiking spots but the extreme heat changes none of my plans. It’s the end of May and I’m stuck in Alaska where the weather is cool and the mosquitos are starting to swarm. The end of the month brings with it the last chance to watch movies leaving the Criterion Channel on the 1st. How can I both quench my thirst for picturesque desert panoramas and watch a classic film before it leaves the Criterion Channel, all from the comfort of a climate controlled theater room?

Sifting through the “Leaving May 31st” list, washing away the movie equivalent of worthless dirt and rocks till all that remained at the bottom of my pan was the shimmering brilliance of Mackenna’s Gold. Spoilers ahead.

Mackenna’s Gold is a treasure hunt story complete with these classic tropes; a lost map to untold riches, bandits forcing kidnapped heroes to lead the way, and a catastrophic earthquake that buries the treasure forever. It’s basically The Goonies, if Mikey murdered Chunk for ratting out their plans to the Fratellis.

It’s tempting to simplistically classify Mackenna’s Gold as a western. While it certainly is, it’s also an epic fantasy film; eschewing realism for wonder. Mackenna’s Gold is more Star Wars than The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The story takes place in a fantasy version of the American Southwest. It opens with aerial stock footage of Bryce Canyon and Monument Valley national parks, identifying the setting as a mythically beautiful and geographically diverse desert landscape.

The locations are essential to the fantasy aspect of the film. The cast travels from a desert oasis where the water is dyed a murky blue to a hidden canyon where the ancient Apache carved stone buildings right into the side of monoliths clearly inspired by Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde. Southern Utah is gorgeous but Mackenna’s Gold seems to take place in only near the most beautiful natural wonders in the area without identifying any of them by name or region. Lacking a specific location helps the film transcend realism and puts every character into a postcard. If the movie took place in a real location we, the audience, would be reminded of the inherent fiction of the picture and weaken our suspension of disbelief. If a historically enormous deposit of gold existed on the border of Utah and Arizona it would’ve already been found and mined and we, the audience, wouldn’t have the thrill of imagining ourselves discovering untold wealth to carry us through the two hour fantasy. The land of Mackenna’s Gold exists in this realm of imagination.

That was the big takeaway, it’s a gorgeously epic fantasy-western adventure film. It’s not as otherworldly as Firefly or as alien as John Carter but it’s absolutely in the same swashbuckling vein. It’s most similar to Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, yeah even in the bad way.

Side notes about the phenomenal cast: Mackenna’s Gold stars Gregory Peck as the titular Mackenna, the rest of the cast is a strange collection of actors from more culturally significant projects. Like Lee J. Cobb from 12 Angry Men, Burgess Meredith and Julie Newmar from the Batman TV series, and Omar Sharif who brought with him an air of prestige from the set of Lawrence of Arabia. Omar steals the show and leaves Peck in his shadow almost instantly. This is Omar’s film. Telly Savalas is a name I recognize but can’t place, inversely Ted Cassidy is a name I’ve never herd but a face I instantly recognized as Lurch from The Addams Family and at least one episode of Star Trek.

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