So, I tend to have an uneasy relationship with Westerns. The handful I’ve seen for the list so far haven’t been that bad, but not good enough that I’ve been able to shake my impression that they tend to be cliché’d, contrived, and a little corny. I’ve also not been impressed with how Native Americans are depicted – either they’re all interchangeable “bloodthirsty warriors”, washed-up drunkards, or noble-savage sidekicks to the square-jawed cowboy lead. The Big Sky started that way, but by the end of the film my dissatisfaction came from a different source – from “here we go, another stereotypical Indian maiden who’s going to end up falling for one of the leads” to “wait, why did she choose that guy?”
The “Indian Maiden” in question is Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt), the daughter of a Blackfoot chief, and the two men who end up vying for her are Jim Deakins (Kirk Douglas) and Boone Caudlil (Dewey Martin). Jim and Boone are a pair of drifters and frontiersmen who meet in Kentucky en route to St. Louis and throw their fates together. Boone has been seeking his uncle Zeb (Arthur Hunnicutt), a trapper who went mysteriously missing a few months back; however, the pair find Zeb quickly enough when they’re tossed into jail for a drunken brawl and find Zeb there too. Fortunately, Zeb’s just got word that his business partner Frenchy (Steven Geray), a French trapper, is final back in town and on his way to bail him out.
Zeb shares the plot for his next expedition with Jim and Boone. A couple years prior, Zeb and Frenchy found Teal Eye wandering far from her tribe, and found out from her that she had been kidnapped by the neighboring Crows and had been seeking a way to return home. Many of the trading companies had been seeking a way to trade with the Blackfoot – even the biggest trading company, the “Missouri River Company”, had been thus far unsuccessful. Zeb figured that if they delivered Teal Eye home, it might serve as a good opening to an exclusive trade deal. Zeb invites Jim and Boone to join him, and all three are sprung from jail together and proceed directly to Frenchy’s boat, beginning their 2,000 mile voyage.
Much of the film covers their voyage, as the men dodge rapids, camp on the riverbanks, and tussle with Crow scouts and Missouri River Company trappers as they edge closer to Blackfoot land. Teal Eye mostly lurks below decks, but Jim and Boone each gradually get to know her, with Jim gradually growing smitten with the pretty Teal Eye. Boone also seems attracted to her, but is a bit more conflicted – he’d heard his brother had been killed by a Blackfoot Indian and has a bit of a grudge. But he’s still drawn to Teal Eye. And Teal Eye gradually warms up to both men as well – although, when they finally reach Blackfoot lands, Teal Eye finally makes it clear how her affections lie, and her feelings are initially a little hard for Jim and Boone to accept.
I’m trying to be a little vague about the Jim/Teal Eye/Boone triangle, because it was the bit that surprised me most. I’ve seen too many such “love triangles” resolved with one man getting suddenly revealed to be an obvious bad choice, and “the right guy” then winning out and instantly rushing into a happily-ever-after. Or we see the two men get into a fistfight over who “gets the girl”. Here, though, Teal Eye makes it clear that she is fond of them both – but one she loves “like a brother”. And when the other gets cold feet about staying with her, she releases him – suspecting that he’ll come back someday anyway. And Jim and Boone both accept her choice, neither bearing the other a grudge. It was a surprisingly nuanced resolution to the old “love triangle” plot, and all the more surprising that it came in the middle of a Western. ….I do have my own complaints about which guy Teal Eye picked, but for the sake of staying spoiler-free I’ll avoid comment.
This is the kind of film that’s usually in John Ford’s wheelhouse, but this time the director is Howard Hawks, he of Bringing Up Baby and The Big Sleep. Hawks takes a page from the Ford playbook, however, showing off the surrounding landscape whenever possible; much of the film was shot in the Grand Teton National Park, and a big title card in the opening credits thanks the Park Service for their help.