Mackenna’s Gold is basically a story about a treasure hunt in the Wild West. Obviously like all other treasure hunt stories the mother load is, as expected from the outset, eventually found. So what makes this one so special? Firstly it has a very tight fast-moving action dominated script with few padded scenes, the love interest is limited to a contest between two competing females probably at the request of Peck as snogging was not his style, the casting is stellar, but most of all the camera and audio is at times quite exceptional and unique.
This is a real golden nugget of a movie from the talented British Director J. Lee Thompson who once again teamed up with actor Gregory Peck and screenwriter Carl Foreman, having worked with them on The Guns of Navarone.
Peck, who turns in another superlative performance, is Sheriff Mackenna who is out riding searching for John Colorado, a notorious Mexican bandit, when he’s ambushed by Prairie Dog, an Apache chief of pensionable years. In the ensuing gunfight Prairie Dog is fatally wounded. Prairie Dog thought Mackenna was after his map, which showed the way to a legendary canyon paved with gold and guarded by Indian spirits. Believing the legend is nonsense Mackenna burns the map but not before storing the details in his mind. While he’s digging a hole for the body, Colorado and his henchmen turn up looking for the treasure map that now only exists in Mackenna’s head. Omar Sharif has the role of Colorado and although it may seem odd to have an Egyptian play a notorious Mexican outlaw in a Western he’s a natural.
Taken prisoner, Mackenna has little choice but to lead Colorado and Co along the route shown on the map, all the while believing it’s a wild goose chase. But first it’s a stop off at Colorado’s hideout to pick up more bandits including Hachita an Apache version of the Incredible Hulk, and Hesh-Ke a highly-strung squaw that was long ago Mackeena’s woman. Also in the mix is Inga Bergeman taken hostage by Colorado after he’d murdered her father the mayor of Hadleyburg. But where gold is concerned word spreads like the plague and pretty soon a bunch of previously stand-up citizens from nearby Hadleyburg now blinded by greed have joined the throng. These must have been cast from an edition of Who’s Who as they include Lee J Cobb, Raymond Massey, Burgess Meredith, Anthony Quayle, Edward G Robinson and Eli Wallach, a real glut of talent.
All, other than Mackenna, are fixated with the prospect of finding gold and this becomes fever pitch when round the campfire Old Adams from Hadleyburg relates how he had seen the canyon of gold but for his troubles the Indians burnt his eyes out so he’d never find it again. So they all set off hoping to become filthy rich but the journey ahead is beset with hazards. It’s not just the Apache tribe protecting the canyon’s secrets hunting them, as the Cavalry are in the area intent on taking down Colorado and his gang who have become the scourge of the territory. It’s the soldier boys that have the most success by setting an ambush along the way decimating Colorado’s men and his newly joined recruits of towns people. As the echoes of bullets thunder around the rocky landscape even Old Adams is mowed down while his stumbles about yelling he’s blind.
Abandoning their neighbours a few town’s people manage to escape only to be remorselessly chased down and scalped by Apaches. The local paper editor tries to buy his freedom with coins and his spectacles but stood more chance if he’d offered his wig. A small contingent does survive the ambush to resume their quest for gold, comprising Mackenna, Colorado, Inga, Hesh-Ke and Hachita. There’s a spot of leisure at a lake with skinny dipping but Mackenna and Inga stay dressed on the excuse their clothes need a wash more than they do. There are some interesting underwater camera shots as the jealous Hesh-Ke attempts to dispose of her rival for Mackenna’s affection.
The cavalry have dispatched a patrol to follow Colorado and his fellow travellers, led by Tibbs a vicious sergeant, a typical role for the menacing Telly Savalas . Each day Tibbs sends back two troopers to report on their position. When there are only two left Tibbs shoots the both and joins Colorado and Co on the search for gold. The Apaches however are hot on their heels and there’s a frantic race at breakneck speed to reach a river ferry crossing and relative safety. The current drags the ferry towards rapids but they take to the water and manage to reach dry land. Resuming their journey they arrive at a tower that is a granite version of the London Shard. This was the last location on the map Mackenna saw, being marked as Shaking Rock. They have to wait for sunrise for the Rock’s shadow to point out the secret entrance to the canyon. Sure enough by following the morning shadow the way in is found. Even the doubting Thomas McKenna is smitten with gold fever as they ride their horses through a winding tunnel.
There follows magic sequence in the movie as they exit the tunnel and have sight of the canyon as the walls and ground glow golden in the sunlight. The frenetic ride down to the canyon floor via a narrow winding ledge is unforgettable. The audio and visuals are simply stunning. They must have strapped microphones to the horses’ hooves and cameras to their eyelids to achieve the effect. It’s like sitting in the front seat of a roller coaster while listening to a crescendo of hammer drills interspersed with heavy breathing. There’s a break for the cameraman as he pans to Hesh-Ke trying to force Inga over the ledge only to take the fall herself in a scene reminiscent of the demise of Uncas from “The Last of the Mohicans”.
Once on the floor of the canyon they become hypnotised by the preponderance of gold in the veins on the walls, nuggets on the ground, and dust in the streams, except Mackenna. He knows Colorado will not share the gold with anyone and proceeds to drag Inga up the canyon wall to a cavern containing old Indian dwellings. Sure enough Colorado has Hachita kill Tibbs while the soldier is filling his saddlebag with nuggets, then despatches the Indian Hulk himself before climbing after Mackenna. What follows is the typical fight to the death between hero and villain at the end of countless movies but just as we’re waiting for Mackenna to come out on top the Indians arrive with guns blazing. The sounds of the shots echo around the canyon causing vibrations that start an earthquake.
Hero and villain, along with Inga, manage to secure some of the terrified horses and make a mad dash to escape the imploding canyon. They make it out by the skin of their teeth as the entrance tunnel collapses behind them. Once in the clear Colorado takes his farewell with Mackenna vowing to pursue, once he is furnished with a gun. All the hero can do for the present is ride off into the sunset with the girl not realising that the horse under him is Tibbs’ and the saddlebags are filled with gold nuggets. There’s just time, while the credits role, to listen to “Ole Turkey Buzzard” the movie’s signature tune, but it should come with a health warning that it’s extremely contagious.