The Big Sky (1952, Howard Hawks)

Is this the most underrated of Howard Hawks’ films? It is, without a doubt, a masterpiece although it is a film rarely accorded with that distinction (except by the critics, such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, who are less fazed by the monolithic canon-complacency of industry-derived or AFI-approved film criticism) and it continues (as far as I’m aware) to exist in degraded prints and half-assed DVD transfers and without a full, proper and befitting restoration. This neglect, to put it plainly, is a crime, a genuine and sad mistreatment of one of the treasures of the American cinema.
Kirk Douglas (never more playful or endearing) is Deakins and Dewey Martin is the half-Native American Boone, two vagrants who meet up with Boone’s worldly trapper uncle Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt) and join a boatload of French sailors heading up river to attempt to trade with a previously-maligned Native American tribe. To ensure their safe passage they carry with them Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt), a kidnapped daughter of the Tribe leader. As the journey continues, with all manner of hold-ups and obstacles, Deakins and Boone compete for the affection and love of Teal Eye.

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The Big Sky is quite possibly the most beautifully shot of any of Hawks’ films, and a film that reaches certain new artistic heights in his mise-en-scene, his poetic (and dare I say socialistic?) placing and framing of groups and clusters of men (and women) in conversation and at work against wide and open expanses or in tight, familiar contact. Hawks’ exemplary knowledge and handling of time and space has perhaps never been better displayed, and indeed, in this Western which predicts the revisionist genre form of coming decades in its complex and even affectionate portrayal of Native Americans (the only tribe which attacks the white heroes being one which has been manipulated by the white villains) and portrayals of uneasiness, love and lust between a white man, a half-Indian man who identifies as a white man and an Native American princess, Hawks has created one of the great examples of the power of suspension and digression in cinema, displaying a casual disregard for the strictures of tight Hollywood narrative progression in favour of a sort of simple, extended existing amongst.
It didn’t please the bosses, of course; The Big Sky originally ran to 140 minutes but was cut down after its premiere to 120. But the effect still lingers; what we have is still Hawks alternative method of film-making: a weaving together of small incidents, interactions, adventures and misadventures (whether humorous, romantic, mysterious, eccentric, violent, contemplative etc.) into a strange sort of living and breathing fabric. Under this big sky that dwarfs and threatens to render humans inadequate Hawks finds joyous refuge collecting moments from the communal lives of his characters; he has a true collector’s mentality, like a great folklorist or compassionate historian who delights in the simultaneous strange uniqueness and wider general human relatability of what he retrieves.  Watching this film, perhaps, we may have a feeling akin to a sort of floating; freed from the relentless forward momentum of most Westerns and thrillers we can find an abode, similar to that of this group of American and French cowboys and sailors as they head up river, amongst the trees and in the mud of the great Missouri and Montana landscapes. We feel we can explore it at length and with as much a modicum of free will as is possible in the cinema, and we can sit amongst or above these men and share with them their laughter, their pains, their songs. There are times when this film feels like it will last forever, or an individual scene will stretch off into eternity, and this is a pleasing and almost utopian sensation, not at all terrifying. Jean Epstein spoke at length of the importance of suspension to cinema, of the moments where narrative slows or stops and the audience can, in these great moments of photogenie, manipulated time and space, discover both inward and outward truths. The Big Sky allows us to find truths, and quite simple and beautiful ones; the truth of the enjoyment of resting, laughing, carousing, sharing, acting together. If this sounds soppy or sentimental it should not; the film is still shot through at times with a certain world-weariness and Hawks is not a particularly sentimental man. Rather he was simply aware of the easily-found and common importance of such numerous elements of human life and activity, and knew their restorative power.

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This perhaps explains my own experience with the film; usually I attempt, somewhat obsessively, to have an experience with home viewing that is as close to that of the cinema as possible. If a viewing is interrupted I attempt to return to complete the film as quickly as possible. In the case of The Big Sky, however, I found myself waiting almost a week between the first and second hours of the film, so happy was I to let it’s suspension(s) extend further in duration, to let it sit at the back of my mind, exerting it’s subtle influences in my perception and feeling of those few days in between viewings. Hawks’ method allows for such experiences, for he is concerned not with telling us a story necessarily, but with showing us and inviting us into a sort of shared experience of living (often distinct and different from our own, but rendered with a certain general familiarity of spirit and behaviour). This experience can last as long as one desires, especially when home video allows us to return so easily to the forests [1] and waters of Montana, and the company of this band of adventurers.
We see here, too, the full reach of Hawks’ conception of masculinity (as exercised through the tight homosocial bonds and communality of his male characters), it’s mixture of the unreconstructed and the reconstructed, of sensitivity and ease with violence (a magnificent scene has Deakins undergoing the amputation of an injured finger, played for laughs as he goes looking for his digit after it bounces away following removal), of psychological complexity and the archetypal/ mythological, intelligence and reactionary foolishness, maturity and boyishness, endless self-sufficient movement and deep loneliness, poetry and lay-of-the-land earthiness. It is, perhaps, a vital corrective to the presentation of infantilised masculinity and male friendship that is now encoded and accepted in society thanks to the witless rhetoric of the fratboy comedy.
So see this film in any way you can, endure any number of bad prints or glitch-filled DVD viewings, for it is a reminder that the cinema can offer us not just the distractions of a story-well-told, but a whole version of a universe, perfectly enclosed, fully-realized and so tantalisingly, gloriously close to the full tactility of our own.
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[1] And how close are these magical, shadow-soaked forests of possibility to that found in the mid-section of Bringing Up Baby, also the work of Howard Hawks and screenwriter Dudley Nichols?

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