Guest Review: Across the Wide Missouri (1951)

Bernard de Voto’s book Across the Wide Missouri became a surprise best-seller in 1947, earning the Pulitzer Prize for History. The brass at MGM quickly purchased the rights to the book in order to use the title and then pondered, ‘what are we going to do with this?’ For, you see, Across the Wide Missouri was a lengthy historical account of the Western fur trade from 1832-1838. It was not a novel. No dialogue. No romance. No cliffhangers. Simply good history.

Screenwriter Talbot Jennings, with the aid of Frank Cavett, undertook to construct an entirely new story based upon the elements he found in the book – America’s vast frontier, the harsh climate, rugged fur traders, and Blackfoot Indians. He wrote a fantastic story, all centering around the star of the film, Clark Gable.

Gable is Flint Mitchell, a beaver trapper who has been waiting for years to get prime beaver land situated in the heart of Blackfoot Indian territory. When he hears that Brecan (John Hodiak) is escorting Kamiah, the granddaughter of Chief Bear Ghost (Jack Holt) of the Blackfoot back to her people, he proposes to marry her instead. Kamiah (Maria Elena Marques) took a shine to Flint and he found his fire lit. Kamiah helps guide the trappers into the new territory but they are barely settled when young Ironshirt (Ricardo Montalban) begins to make trouble for them.

Across the Wide Missouri is a beautiful western featuring some of the most stunning location scenery to be found in any western of the 1950s. Director William Wellman (The Public Enemy, The Ox-Bow Incident) took the cast and crew in tow to Durango, Colorado, to shoot the film on location. Technicolor equipment had to be carried by mule ten thousand feet up in the Rockies. Cinematographer William Mellor captures so much of the mountainous beauty of this area. He frames each scene like a painting, selecting key elements to use as foreground.

Clark Gable gives an especially touching performance as the new father protecting his infant son in the ravaged territory, and Maria Elena Marques is particularly beautiful as Kamiah. Marques (Romeo y Julieta, La Perla) was a famous Mexican film star of the 1940s-1960s and a popular singer as well. In this film, we only hear her once, singing a lullaby to her baby.

Each of the cast is well suited to their role. Adolphe Menjou, James Whitmore, Alan Napier, and J. Carroll Naish also get prominent parts as trappers and Indians.

The only disappointing aspect of the film is its runtime – a mere 79 minutes. Across the Wide Missouri ended all too quickly. The film had the makings of a grand epic and such an expansive story deserved a longer runtime. This was not the blame of William Wellman, who was so disgusted with Dore Schary’s decision to edit the film that he said, “I’ve never seen it and never will”. Wellman had directed a character-driven picture centering around Flint Mitchell’s acceptance of the Native American world, but preview audiences gave a poor response to this. The film was cut and a narration by an uncredited Howard Keel was added to the soundtrack.

In spite of these edits, Across the Wide Missouri remains an under-rated gem of a film that deftly blends action and drama with a sprinkling of humor.

Constance Metzinger runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.”