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June 02, 2016

Something Big

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Andrew V. McLaglen - 1971
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

The ghost of John Ford is never too far away in Something Big. In addition to having Ford company players Ben Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. in the cast, Brian Keith is made to look somewhat like John Wayne as Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Carey even strums a few notes from that film's theme song. There's also Carol White speaking with a Scottish brogue, not quite Maureen O'Hara. Andrew McLaglen and screenwriter James Lee Barrett also include a cavalry regiment singing for Brian Keith, in honor of his retirement, before breaking out in a brawl. There is also the casting of former football player Merlin Olsen, large in height and girth, homage to the director's father, Victor McLaglen. Andrew McLaglen began his career as an assistant to John Ford on the The Quiet Man, and his first major film was McLintock!, virtually a transposing of The Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara battling each other in the old west.

Stepping outside the genre expectations of being John Wayne's house director, Andrew McLaglen seems to have been at a loss trying to make a film that fit it with the newer westerns that turned out to be the last gasp of a once reliable genre. While peer and occasional collaborator ended up making his own Euro-western with Hannie Caulder, it would appear that McLaglen was responding to the two big westerns of 1969, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch. While "Raindrops are Falling on my Head" inexplicably became a hit song, and is one of the more memorable parts of Butch Cassidy, does anyone remember that Burt Bacharach-Hal David song that play while Paul Newman was cavorting with a bear in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean? The title song might have been less forgettable had the singer been Something Big star Dean Martin, rather than Mark Lindsay, cast adrift since leaving the mid-Sixties rock band, Paul Revere and the Raiders.

Where the Peckinpah connection comes in is with Dino getting hold of a Gatling gun, with the intent of robbing a legendary bandit's huge stash. Dino's gang of bandits all look grungy. No one looks like they've bathed or shaved. This is more or less a family friendly movie, so most of the violence is bloodless. When Dean Martin mows down a score of Mexican bandits with the Gatling gun, it's impersonal, lacking the catharsis or any meaning that came with Peckinpah's film.

In his New York Times' review, Vincent Canby described Something Big as ". . . one of those Pop period Westerns that's difficult to dislike even though it's not really very good . . .". The was Dean Martin's first film after Airport seemed to indicate renewed popularity. As Nick Tosches' biography of Martin made clear, Martin would prefer to watch a Western rather than act in one, but when it came to acting, Martin usually enjoyed playing cowboy. McLaglen, Barrett and Martin did much better earlier with Bandolero!, with Martin as the outlaw younger brother of James Stewart. Martin, as a failed outlaw in the newer film, resolves to do "something big" before surrendering to domestic life in Pennsylvania. Throughout the film, there are references to "something big", the film's attempt at a running joke. One of the other gags here is that Martin's dog is a little, unkempt, Scotch terrier.

Supporting players Denver Pyle, Joyce Van Patten and Judi Meredith provide some much needed gusto. Martin, for the most part, seems indifferent, expending little energy or even his well known charm in his performance. Whatever Andrew McLaglen and James Lee Barrett thought they were doing, Something Big turned out to be a misnomer of a title.

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Posted by peter at June 2, 2016 12:55 PM