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The Weekend Western: The Hallelujah Trail December 17, 2007

Posted by Ian W in : Film Reviews, Comedy, Westerns , 2 comments

Denver has run dry of whiskey and, with a predicted hard winter ahead, things look bad for the miners. The town purchases 40 wagonloads of the stuff, more than enough to survive the winter, from Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith) but can the wagon train make it through treacherous country that not only holds Indians but also Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick) and her Women’s Temperance League? Colonel Thaddeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) tries to keep the peace but finds his hands full with Cora, a woman of forceful conviction and obvious feminine charm.

I’m a big fan of John Sturges, he made some true classics like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, and even some of his lesser known films like Last Train from Gun Hill and Hour of the Gun are personal favourites of mine. Someone should have told him though that “epic” and “comedy” don’t go together.

And Epic comedy is just what The Hallelujah Trail tries to be, and with a running time of 150 minutes (complete with entrance, intermission and exit music) it certainly has the length of an epic. Robert Surtees’ gorgeous cinematography and Elmer Bernstein’s rousing score ensure it also looks and sounds the part but it falls down when it comes to the script.

There aren’t many laugh out loud moments in John Gay’s screenplay, at its best it manages to elicit a feeling of mild amusement, but spread across such a inflated running time it’s stretched too thin. The film could easily loose a third of its running time and be all the better for it. Instead it sprawls across two and a half hours seemingly because Sturges wanted to make a BIG picture.

The actors do well with what they have to work with. Lancaster is fine as the beleaguered Colonel but he got to show off his gift for comedy in a western setting far better a couple of years later in Sydney Pollack’s The Scalphunters. Lee Remick looks stunning and probably gives the films best performance, while talented actors like Donald Pleasence and Brian Keith are wasted in underwritten parts (a real sin given the bloated running time). Jim Hutton doesn’t really have much to do but at least he looks more at home here than he did in Major Dundee and Martin Landau probably comes out top if you work out the laughs/screen time ratio, as Chief Walks-Stooped-Over.

The Hallelujah Trail is a bit of a misfire by one of Hollywood’s most reliable directors, it’s not without some charm but it is overindulgent and under written.

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