Blown up to Road Show spectacular dimensions, a fairly modest idea for a comedy western became something of a career Waterloo for director John Sturges. But it’s still a favorite of fans thrilled by fancy 70mm-style presentations. A huge cast led by Burt Lancaster, Lee Remick, Jim Hutton and Pamela Tiffin leads the charge on a whisky-soaked madcap chase. It’s all in a fine spirit of fun. . . so where are the big laughs?
The Hallelujah Trail
1965 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 155 min. / Street Date February 27, 2018 / available through the Olive Films website / 24.95
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Lee Remick, Jim Hutton, Pamela Tiffin, Donald Pleasence, Brian Keith, Martin Landau, John Anderson, Tom Stern, Robert J. Wilke, Dub Taylor, Whit Bissell, Helen Kleeb, Val Avery, Hope Summers, John Dehner.
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Film Editor: Ferris Webster
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Written by John Gay from the novel by William Gulick
Executive Producer Walter Mirisch
Associate Producer Robert Relyea
Produced and Directed by John Sturges
In 1964 John Sturges decided that the way to stay in business was to go big. As a producer-director he found it increasingly difficult to make the kind of movies he wanted to make. His lucrative deal with the Mirisch Organization didn’t mean much when successful movies required big stars, that increasingly demanded control of their pictures. Sturges had so successfully advanced the careers of the actors in his The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape — Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn — that he could no longer afford them. Working with Frank Sinatra was an exercise in futility. Sinatra was apparently so convinced that a director was unnecessary that he was arranging to direct himself in a war epic. With Walter Mirisch behind him and United Artists’ blessing, Sturges went forward with a huge gamble: a massive Road Show western spectacular as a slapstick comedy. Think, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World but with horses and wagons and cavalrymen and Indians. One big positive factor for the show was that the major star Burt Lancaster owed United Artists a picture at a bargain price, for one third of his going rate. It was part of a penalty Lancaster’s company owed UA, for going overbudget on his own feature productions.
Director Sturges put all of his energies into what would become The Hallelujah Trail. He reportedly spent much of the downtime on the set of his previous film The Satan Bug working out the details. The actors complained that he neglected Satan Bug while laughing it up with editor Ferris Webster and cameraman Robert Surtees over the jokes for his pending super-western.
Road Show action spectaculars would soon fade from the scene, but not because people didn’t like the format. Seeing How the West Was Won in a fancy theater with a deluxe presentation felt like something special, to be remembered always. But the movies had to be worth the effort. Lawrence of Arabia was a life-changing experience, but Ice Station Zebra was not. And sub-par shows like Custer of the West and Krakatoa East of Java didn’t even give viewers a good time for their money, despite being filmed in large-format 70mm. Perhaps audiences saw what was coming with The Hallelujah Trail, a comedy that lost all its charm potential when inflated to Road Show proportions.
Sturges’ movie is basically an epic western take on a 1949 Ealing Comedy by Alexander Mackendrick, Tight Little Island (retitled here as Whiskey Galore). A nearly perfect entertainment, Tight Little Island concerns the unhappy inhabitants of a little Scottish island, when wartime rationing has cut them off from liquor deliveries. News arrives that a ship loaded with spirits has run aground on the rocks, and the desperate Scotsmen risk life and limb to salvage what they can. But then they have to hide their ill-gotten booty from the local British authorities.
John Sturges had mastered action films, suspense pictures, and even sentimental movies; he’d made his reputation by charming difficult talent and getting along with demanding collaborators. The Hallelujah Trail was a model production. Although a large-scale picture, it was organized and filmed without undue waste or delays. It’s basically a cavalry picture, and Sturges had already made two of them. The only angle not a perfect fit was that Trail was to be a broad, knockabout comedy. Sturges had no track record for that, except for his Rat Pack movie Sergeants Three. His screenwriter John Gay wasn’t exactly a slapstick expert either — his big movies were Run Silent, Run Deep, Separate Tables, and the heartwarming family story The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.
The Hallelujah Trail leads off with a big Road Show buildup courtesy of Elmer Bernstein’s rollicking overture, and a colorful main title sequence. The story proper begins in Denver, 1867, where the miners fear that they’ll have to spend an entire winter without whisky. Clayton Powell (Dub Taylor) consults an alcoholic seer called Oracle Jones (Donald Pleasance), who detects whiskey somewhere in the East. Frontier distiller Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith) is indeed coming from Julesburg with forty wagonloads of quality goods. He has labor problems with his Irish teamsters led by Kevin O’Flaherty (Tom Stern). Wallingham also fears Indian attacks, and therefore demands protection from the U.S. Cavalry. The Indians, represented by the alcoholic dunderheads Chief Walks-Stooped-Over and Chief Five Barrels (Martin Landau & Robert J. Wilke), learn of the shipment and argue over which band of braves will take on the task of obtaining the Red Man’s fair share. The frontier fort of cavalry Colonel Thaddeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) has in the meantime been overrun by the Temperance marchers of activist Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick), who has enlisted Gearhart’s own daughter Louise (Pamela Tiffin) in her cause. Louise is also seeing Captain Paul Slater (Jim Hutton) on the side, for advanced necking sessions.
Using public pressure, army regulations and her feminine wiles, Cora induces Gearhart to escort her Temperance ladies to meet the whisky wagon train. Captain Slater takes a second unit forward to intercept the train first. From Denver Clayton Powell and Oracle Jones lead a contingent of miners with the same mission, to safeguard their promised whiskey. Miners, Temperance ladies, soldiers and Indians all converge on the train in the middle of a massive sandstorm, where hundreds of shots are fired but nobody hurt. There follows a long, confusing series of flubbed negotiations, double-crosses and kidnappings to determine who shares in the liquid bounty. The Irish teamsters strike. The ladies try to hold a temperance meeting in an Indian encampment. Cora finds a way to cause several wagons of champagne explode, and the resulting noises lead Gearhart to think the Indians have opened fire. While Oracle Jones and Frank Wallingham scheme to sneak some of the wagons out on a secret path through a quicksand bog, the Indians’ wagons crash and smash on the rocks.
Rollicking cavalry comedy worked okay in Sturges’ Sergeants Three but was more suited to TV’s F-Troop (1965), which dealt in Burlesque- level characterizations and silly slapstick. The Hallelujah Trail is so over-sized, and its main joke so thin, that its possibilities are expended at the forty-minute mark. Its fans surely enjoy the scale, the giant screen presentation and the antics of Remick and Lancaster. Everyone plays their roles well and the proceedings are at all times amusing, but the big laughs are few and soon disappear altogether. The show eventually becomes tiring.
What doesn’t work? Too many characters are one-note cartoons, or simply serve as place-fillers. The soggy seer played by Donald Pleasance is just not funny, as is almost all of the script’s too-obvious drunk humor. The film’s second romantic leads basically stand around with nothing to do. Tiffin had proved her skill with laugh lines in Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three but the script just doesn’t have any. Jim Hutton’s Captain Slater might as well be Gearhart’s butler, his role is so functional. The need to make things ‘big’ is the problem. A nondescript trooper is given the duty of mis-translating between English and Sioux, to little or no humorous effect. Were Hutton given that comic business to perform, he might have made something of it.
The problem with the Temperance ladies and the Indians is not the non-PC humor, but the fact that the screenplay does nothing creative with its topical jokes. Even in a farce, the characters need to have some consistency. Activist Cora Massingale is completely disreputable. (Her last name sounds intended as a joke on a feminine hygiene company.) Cora is a spirited rabble-rouser yet a also liar who reneges on her bargains and uses her feminine ‘advantage’ to get her way. She rattles Gearhart with sneaky tricks that don’t advance her cause. She turns out to be a phony anyway, hitting the booze for an easy joke. Lee Remick’s considerable charm aside, Cora’s not funny when she’s sincere, and not funny when she’s devious.
The ’60s were a big time for lame Injun jokes — comic westerns abounded with drunken Indians with funny names. Martin Landau and Robert J. Wilke lead the pack here, but even their parts are underwritten — Landau often just stands around during long scenes, with a vacant look on his face. Deadpan narration starts the film off on a good footing, describing serious incidents that the visuals reveal as vaudeville tomfoolery. That loses its charm as well. We remember enjoying little bits of business, such as Lancaster flashing his famous shark smile, and a few ‘bop on the head’ jokes suitable for The Three Stooges. But in the end Hallelujah Trail just seems witless. We end up thinking about the abundant professionalism on screen — the precision of the riders, and the many dangerous stunt gags.
That doesn’t mean that John Sturges’ picture wasn’t impressive when new. In Ultra Panavision 70, billed as 70mm Super Cinerama, it must have looked incredible spread out to the wide, wide 2.76: 1 aspect ratio. The audio was originally in six-track magnetic stereo. But the box office failure of this picture and The Greatest Story Ever Told surely put United Artists off big 70mm productions permanently. Five years later, when Walter Mirisch filmed the big-scale Fiddler on the Roof, it was released in 70mm but filmed in ordinary 35mm Panavision.
I don’t think John Sturges’ career ever recovered. His production Hour of the Gun is one of his best movies, but it sank without a trace. Time has not been kind to Ice Station Zebra, Marooned is terrible, and of his remaining pictures only Joe Kidd shows some of Sturges’ former flair for taut, efficient thrills.
Olive Films’ Blu-ray of The Hallelujah Trail is not the Blu-ray fans are waiting for. This movie definitely needs a great encoding to allow its size and scope can impress the viewer. Although more than watchable — Bernstein’s music always entertains — the image is seriously deficient. Close-ups are not too bad, but in all the wide shots the picture has serious problems. The image is soft and under-detailed, and practically a catalog of digital artifacts, with contrast lines that bleed and highlights bouncing through horizontal lines. The animation in the main titles exhibit numerous digital errors, with parts of letters ‘torn’ by video errors.
Colors are fairly bright and the action seems smooth, but I don’t believe this was sourced from an HD transfer. It looks exactly like an up-rez from NTSC or PAL. Yes, it looks better than MGM’s old flat-letterboxed DVD, but that’s not saying much.
MGM may not even have an HD transfer of Trail in either this 35mm standard theatrical release version, or the Road Show cut said to be as much as ten minutes longer. I am not privy to MGM’s policies, but I have always heard that the studio doesn’t create Blu-ray masters by up-converting standard def masters. None of the studios normally do that, to my knowledge. The most I’ve seen are Blu-rays that have cheated by reformatting flat HD into widescreen HD, and gotten away with it. Some casual viewers may accept this disc, but the Blu-ray websites concerned about presentation quality are not going to review it kindly.
Olive has a trailer but no other extras. The show does come with removable English subs.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Hallelujah Trail
Movie: Good — minus-minus
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 1, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson