Sunday, October 23, 2016

From Beyond Maps

"Trees lie where they fall, and men were buried where they died."

Narrator (Howard Keel)

If you like horses, you'll probably like "Across the Wide Missouri," which premiered on this day in 1951. It had a lot of horses.

Does that sound flippant? It isn't intentional. Fact is, I do like horses — and I liked "Across the Wide Missouri," too, but not simply because it had horses.

To be honest, though, there really wasn't much of a plot — at least by the standards of the times. When you sit down to watch a western from the '40s or '50s, you expect a movie that has obviously good guys (usually the cowboys or the soldiers) and definitely bad guys (typically the Indians although sometimes they were outlaws). The idea that the cowboys/soldiers might be the bad guys and the Indians/outlaws might be the good guys was seldom if ever explored in the movies — at least until comparatively recently.

And "Across the Wide Missouri" wasn't necessarily a radical departure from that norm. It simply seemed to take a more neutral position than most of the movies I have seen from that time. It made few judgments about who was right and who was wrong although it often spoke of issues that would provoke intense debates today. It simply told a story — in much the same way that a textbook would. You know ... This happened and then this happened and then this happened.

No in–depth exploration of cause and effect. All very matter of fact.

I'm not suggesting it lacked a story, but "matter of fact" is an apt description. The movie was based on an historian's book about actual fur traders and their experiences with the Indians. Clark Gable played the central character, a fur trapper, and he was surrounded by some well–known people — James Whitmore, Howard Keel (who did the off–screen narration), Ricardo Montalban — and some who were not so well known.

Like 24–year–old Mexican actress–singer María Elena Marqués, who portrayed the adopted daughter of an Indian chief. She had been in Mexican movies for nearly 10 years, but "Across the Wide Missouri" was one of her few Hollywood movies so she couldn't have been too familiar to American audiences. She was Gable's love interest.

Gable actually came to love her in time, but the marriage began as one of convenience. It basically allowed Gable's character to trap at will in Indian territory. It also saved him from being scalped.

His wife gave birth to a son then was killed by a warring Indian tribe. And for awhile, after Marqués' character was killed, it was uncertain whether Gable would care for his son or not. That wouldn't be a politically correct angle in the 21st century, but nearly 200 years ago it was apparently acceptable for a man to abandon his children if he lost his wife.

Well, perhaps not acceptable, but in those days it may have been considered a legitimate option for a man whose work kept him away from his home for much of the year.

It is important to keep such things in context. The movie was set about 30 years before the start of the Civil War. Many of the modern states west of the Missouri River were nothing more than unsettled territories, if that.

It's safe to say the rules were different in those days — starting with the fact that there were no rules in many places. In fact, there were few boundaries. A man lived by his wits and seizing the day.

In my favorite line from the movie, at a gathering of trappers, one was asked where they all came from. He replied, "They come from beyond maps."

I thought "Across the Wide Missouri" was probably a more realistic depiction of the times and the people than most movies of its genre — precisely because it kept that in mind.

And then there were the horses.