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MacKenna's Gold

MacKenna's Gold, directed by J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone), arrived in 1969, the most pivotal time for American Westerns as the tumultuous '60s had fundamentally uprooted the heroic paradigm and unconventional films like The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid pretty much put the entire genre out to pasture for a couple of decades. MacKenna's Gold can arguably be placed in the same category, but its overall results are not nearly as successful. Gregory Peck stars as U.S. Marshal MacKenna, who is kidnapped by the notorious Mexican bandito Colorado (Omar Sharif) and his gang because the lawman knows where a legendary canyon of gold is located. Unable to break free, MacKenna leads the group on a long journey where they are joined by even more adventure-seekers, ambitious men who will not give up the search even though MacKenna warns that most of them will not come back alive. There's a lot of traditional adventure plotting in MacKenna's Gold (plot-twists, double-crosses, hair-raising escapes from danger), and it trots out a shopworn theme (did you know that blind greed causes folks to act irrationally?). Peck essentially phones in his role as the honest MacKenna, and only Sharif gets to play with some Wild Bunch amorality — as the most crooked of criminals, he also has a mischievous streak, and he offers more on-screen charisma than the rest of the (sizable) cast put together, making him a hard guy to hate, even at his most vicious. Meanwhile, director Thompson falls under the influence of '60s avant garde filmmaking, playing around with things like fish-eye lenses, picture distortions, freeze-frames, and even some unusual sound design (sucker bet: he just saw Easy Rider). But whatever potential MacKenna's Gold might have offered as one of the last Westerns from Hollywood's Golden Age is fundamentally undermined by the commonplace narrative, and some effects are incredibly shoddy, including giveaway miniatures in a few action sequences and some rear-projection compositions that do nothing to hide the fact that the actors are riding mechanical saddles in a climate-controlled studio. Also starring Telly Savalas, Camilla Sparv, Keenan Wynn, Julie Newmar, Lee J. Cobb, Burgess Meredith, Anthony Quayle, Edward G. Robinson, and Eli Wallach. A cinematic curiosity at best, largely because of Sharif's performance. Columbia TriStar's DVD edition of MacKenna's Gold, part of their "Western Classics" series, offers an acceptable transfer (anamorphic 2.35:1) that appears a little soft at times, from a source print that suffers from both color desaturation and some flecking. Audio is available in a new DD 5.0 mix or Dolby 2.0. Cast notes, trailers for The Guns of Navarone and Lawrence of Arabia. Keep-case.
—JJB



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