Thursday, October 15, 2015
In his well-researched landmark biography of John Sturges, film critic Glenn Lovall points out that the failure of “The Hallelujah Trail” at the box office forced John Sturges back into being a contract director. Unfortunately, this ambitious, $ 7 million dollar, two-hour and forty-five minute western extravaganza did prove to be Sturges’ undoing. Sadly, according to Wikipedia, this United Artists’ release generated only $4 million during its initial release. Nevertheless, I’ve always thought it was an incredibly hilarious and splendidly staged western comedy. The closest that Sturges had come to making a comedy was the Frank Sinatra & Dean Martin western “Sergeants Three,” but “The Hallelujah Trail” (*** OUT OF ****) was far from anything that “The Magnificent Seven” helmer had ever undertaken. Sturges assembled a first-rate cast. Burt Lancaster, who starred in Sturges’ first big western “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” took top billing as Colonel Thaddeus Gearhart. Gearhart was a traditional, straight-laced U.S. Calvary commander who is in charge of a frontier fort who has a beautiful daughter, Louise Gearhart (Pamela Tiffin of “One, Two, Three”), who is hopelessly in love with an officer, Captain Paul Slater (Jim Hutton of “Major Dundee”), who serves under Gearhart at the fort. At one point, Gearhart finds Slater and his daughter rolling around on his bear skin rug. The hugely funny western takes advantage of the usual elements of most standard-issue oaters. There is the inevitable clash between the U.S. Calvary and the Native Americans. Similarly, the alcoholic frontiersmen ruffle the feathers of the Ladies of the Temperance Movement. This sprawling, ‘battle of the sexes’ western brings together all these parties for an incredible finale in a swamp.
John Gay’s complicated screenplay based on William Gulick’s entertaining western novel concerns the efforts of desperate Denver merchants inspired by 'Oracle' Jones (Donald Pleasance of “The Great Escape”) to get a wagon train of liquor to them before they exhaust their supplies for the winter. Signs indicate that the winter will be the worst in years and the merchants don’t want to run out of suds. Moreover, a citizens’ committee shares the merchant’s anxiety. Meantime, beer merchant Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith of “The Wind and the Lion”) organizes an emergency shipment of booze to Denver, but he must contend with obnoxious Irish teamsters, led by Kevin O'Flaherty (Tom Stern of “Clay Pigeon”) who feel that he is taking advantage of them. O'Flaherty constantly addresses Wallingham as “your lordship,” and Wallingham grumbles about it the entire time. Of course, when the Indians learn about this huge shipment of liquor, they decide to help themselves to it. Walllingham demands that Gearhart provide an escort to safeguard his booze from Chief Walks-Stooped-Over (Martin Landau of “Impossible Impossible”) as well as Chief Five Barrels (Robert J. Wilke of “The Magnificent Seven”) and they bring along their respective tribes. If contending with Indians armed with Winchester repeating rifles weren’t challenging enough, Wallingham faces opposition for a well-known Temperance champion, Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick of “The Omen”), who just happens to be holding meetings at Gearhart’s fort. Massingale decides to intercept the shipment of suds and destroy the beer, and Gearhart’s daughter joins her. Naturally, an upset Colonel Gearhart decides that he must provide an escort for these dames and Sergeant Buell (John Anderson of “The Satan Bug”) to keep them out of harm’s way.
Lancaster is absolutely brilliant as the square-jawed, Calvary colonel who must supervise everything in this massive sagebrusher. His comic timing is impeccable. The scenes that he has with Lee Remick will keep you in stitches as she manipulates him skillfully throughout the narrative. The contempt that these two characters have for each other inevitably brings them together in the long run. The dialogue is crisp and smirk inducing, especially when Gearhart reprimands his top sergeant to his lack of Army strategy. Sturges doesn’t slight anybody and he gives some rather unusual parts to actors who had never done anything like these roles. Martin Landau is terrifically amusing as Chief Who Walks Stooped Over and British actor Donald Pleasance, who eventually played villain in “Will Penny,” is cast as a barfly. Crowning all these wonderful performances are Elmer Bernstein’s impressive orchestral score and “Satan Bug” lenser Robert Surtee’s radiant widescreen photography. In addition to “The Hallelujah Trail,” Surtees photographed not only “Escape from Fort Bravo,” but also “The Law and Jake Wade” for Sturges. If you enjoy happilhy-ever-after comedies where the performers behave as if they were is a serious dramatic saga, “The Hallelujah Trail” is ideal entertainment.