"I look on Kirk as being one of our great heavies - every time he’s played that kind of thing he’s awfully good. And when he attempts to be too pleasant or show friendship, it doesn’t come off." - Howard Hawks on The Big Sky
The Big Sky (1952) Movie Trailer
The Big Sky - 1952 (Original Poster)
Released in the United States in August of 1952, “The Big Sky” was Howard Hawks’ first box office disappointment since 1938’s “Bringing Up Baby.” His remarkable string of hits included several comedies, dramas, action pictures, a biographical picture, a film noir, a musical, and a western.
Despite its lack of commercial success, “The Big Sky” remains a cherished stepchild in the Howard Hawks movie canon.
The lush black and white cinematography, filmed on location in Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, invites you to linger in the world the director has created. You actually have no choice; Hawks takes his time telling this story. Those who admire this film, enjoy the extra breathing room. Others blame the relaxed pace for its failure to match the success of previous Hawks creations.
Like the river the characters follow on their quest to trade with the Blackfoot tribe, this movie seems to meander, zig, and zag, as it rolls toward its conclusion. Matching the pace of wilderness exploration in the 1830s is, however, both fitting and appropriate. While often classified as a western, “The Big Sky” is more of a river movie. Hawks even took the extra step of hiring men who had actually worked on the river to crew the vessel that takes the mixed crew of French and American adventurers upstream. This move not only aided in the efficiency of moving the balky watercraft but also gave those scenes an authentic feel.
Howard Hawks would later blame himself for the perceived failure of “The Big Sky.” In blunt terms he said, “It should have been a really good picture. It’s my fault.”
In some senses, he is right. The director and the producer are generally responsible for the major casting decisions in the movies they are making. Hawks filled both pair of shoes in the creation of “The Big Sky” and by ignoring his own well-honed instincts; he missed out on a golden opportunity to make a masterpiece.
When he began thinking about making this movie, he considered casting Robert Mitchum and Marlon Brando in the lead roles. Howard Hughes had Mitchum under contract. The previous summer, he told Hawks he could hire the actor to play riverboat explorer Jim Deakins. When production time rolled around, Hughes reneged on that promise. Hawks would regret not fighting harder to get Mitchum or an actor of his stature to play this important role. He never developed a good relationship with Kirk Douglas and soon came to believe that Douglas was better off playing heavies and lacked the skill to portray friendship or warmth.
The Marlon Brando situation came down to bad judgment regarding the actor’s salary demand. Having just completed work on “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Brando demanded $125,000 to play the role of Boone Caudill, the leading character in the book. Hawks thought the price was too high and went on the cheap side by the inexperienced (and somewhat less talented) Dewey Martin for $6,325. To complete the casting quandary, Hawks ended up hiring the troublesome Kirk Douglas for the $125,000 it would have cost him to get Brando.
The one major casting decision that the director/producer got right on “The Big Sky” was hiring Arthur Hunnicutt to play Uncle Zeb Calloway. Hunnicutt was only forty but looked much older. He was able to make you believe that he had lived off the land and experienced the outrageous adventures of Uncle Zeb. Hunnicutt was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work on “The Big Sky.”
Despite its reputation as one of the lesser Howard Hawks movies, “The Big Sky” still provides many rewards for viewers willing to accept its relaxed pace. It is a good movie but it still remains interesting to wonder what it could have been with Robert Mitchum and Marlon Brando in the lead roles.
Director: Howard Hawks
Producer: Howard Hawks Edward Lasker (Associate Producer)
Screenplay: Dudley Nichols A.B. Guthrie Jr. (novel "The Big Sky") Ray Buffum and DeVallon Scott (adaptation)
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Editor: Christian Nyby
Art Directors: Albert S. D'Agostino and Perry Ferguson
By following the life and art of Howard Hawks one can capture the true essence of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as if slipping on special lenses that suddenly pull away the grain and glare to reveal an unforgettable time of Movie Magic.