something big stinks here. CBS DVD and Paramount have released something big, the 1971 Western action "comedy" from Cinema Central Films, with Brian Keith, Honor Blackman, Ben Johnson, Albert Salmi, Denver Pyle, Carol White, Joyce Van Patten, Merlin Olsen, and starring a shockingly disconnected Dean Martin. Written and directed by old pros James Lee Barrett and Andrew V. McLaglen, something big should have been at the very least an enjoyable Western piffle with that equally competent cast and a promising storyline...but something big happened on the way to the big screens. And it wasn't good. An original trailer is included in this solid-looking widescreen transfer.
At a dusty cavalry outpost on the edge of the New Mexico territory border, crusty Colonel Morgan (Brian Keith) awaits the arrival of his wife, Mary Anna (Honor Blackman), who will escort him back East now that he has officially retired from the service. The arrival of sidewinder Junior Frisbee (Denver Pyle), however, with his dead partner slung over a mule, throws Morgan's quiet departure for a loop. Seems that Junior's partner was shot dead by notorious stagecoach bandit Joe Baker (Dean Martin). Now, the Colonel couldn't care less about murderous Junior's loss, but he is concerned about the reports that Baker is planning "something big," with just what that "something big" is Morgan can't say―his local scout, Jesse Bookbinder (Ben Johnson) hasn't a clue, either. Even Baker doesn't really know what that "something big" is...because he's been avoiding pulling off a game-changing heist ever since he left Pennsylvania four years ago and came out West. As his right-hand man, Tommy McBride (Don Knight), rightly surmises, Baker is avoiding such an act because that would mean the end of his footloose ways: Baker only came out West to make enough money to marry McBride's headstrong sister, Dover (Carol White). If his "something big" is successful...a reluctant Baker has to go back. So when a letter from Dover announcing her imminent arrival spurs Baker into action, he has to think of "something big" to do...and that would be knocking off Mexican warlord Emilio Estevez (José Ángel Espinoza), who has a huge cache of gold hidden in his very own captured town. And to knock Estevez over, Baker is going to need "something big" like a Gatling gun to wipe out Estevez' army. And to get the gun from wanted outlaw Jonny Cobb (Albert Salmi), Baker has to trade: Cobb's stolen Gatling gun...for a woman.
If you've read any of my reviews for Westerns―particularly for big-studio ones from something big's time period―then you'll know I give them a lot of leeway in terms of aesthetics versus entertainment. The Western genre is one of the hardest ones for moviemakers to actively screw up because the conventions are so thoroughly understood, anticipated and appreciated by fans: horses, guns, cowboys, bad guys, and action. If you're not concerned with making something deeper than that within the genre, then that's all you really need to make, at the very minimum, an entertaining oater that will satisfy a Western fan looking for some uncomplicated outdoor action. So if you add to the unpretentious pleasures of all those countless "B" Westerns from Hollywood's golden age of the oater the more opulent conventions of the late-period Hollywood studio Western product―a big budget, some big stars, color, and a big, wide screen―you should be good-to-go on pulling off a Western that delivers on its prime function: entertainment.
So when I tell you that something big is something not so big and not so entertaining, you can believe it. Trying to strike an uneasy GP-rated ("all ages admitted, parental guidance suggested" back in 1971) note between Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch, something big has a few light, funny, oddball elements floating around in it that could have been harnessed into an acceptable comedy Western, had they been more fully developed and carefully arranged. Anytime Brian Keith is on, the movie works. His low-key take on a befuddled, exasperated colonel about to retire is the best thing in something big; it's too bad the movie wasn't about him and his final days at the post, rather than his character occupying a sideline subplot to Dino's bandit. Joyce Van Patten and Judi Meredith seem to be in on the joke, as well, creating two very funny, very horny women miners stranded out in the middle of nowhere, attacking any man they can catch (Salmi, however, is a mistake as the villain Jonny; he's not a big-enough personality to either be the equal to Martin on-screen, or to get the laughs necessary for his character to work).
But these and other promising strands of something big are criminally undeveloped, giving the movie not a whimsical, picaresque tone, but rather a slapdash, mishmashed feel that comes from either a poorly-designed script or a massacre in post-production editing. How can you take as talented an actor as Ben Johnson, a John Ford regular soon to win the Academy Award that year, and set him up to be an amusing "character"―a scout who can't find anything―and then do absolutely nothing with that character? Why didn't Barrett and McLaglen just make the movie about Johnson and Keith, trading insults Ford-style with some knockabout comedy and Irish sentiment thrown in as Keith rode out his retirement and waited wistfully for his wife? Why are potentially rewarding comedic situations set up in something big, only to be totally ignored? Why do they show Merlin Olsen reading poetry, and having him be called "sensitive," if they're not going to explore that? Sure it's funny when Keith gets a hug from him and Keith embarrassedly exclaims, "Get a grip on yourself! You've been in the Army too long, far too long!" but why not show us why he's reading poetry or why he's "sensitive?" Or what about Dino and his dog? You set up Dino having a cute pooch who rides with him...and then the dog plays absolutely no part in the plot? You couldn't have the pooch do something, fercrissakes, like carry a stick of dynamite or grab somebody's pistol at some point? And why make a point of Dino talking about loving his horse enough to put gold fillings in his teeth (they even give us a long insert shot of them) and then drop it?
But then...why would we expect something big to get the little details right when it can't even manage the big ones? In every sense, the biggest "something" in something big is that hole at the center of its story: Dino's quest to do "something big" (jesus, the movie has a running joke of everyone saying that phrase about ten times and it's just not funny). If the movie is going to work, we have to know why Dino feels the need to do "something big," and that "something big," once completed, has to feel like an appropriate solution to satisfying Dino's desires. Unfortunately, we never get a true handle on Dino's waverings, primarily because Dean Martin's non-performance is so utterly...invisible. A good actor engaged with the material might have pulled off something big's nebulous grasp of Baker's longings, his searching, his being torn between White and Blackman (just thinking of top actors from that period, Burt Lancaster's alternately sad/vibrant poetic romanticism would have been a good fit here). Good actor Dean Martin, however, completely disengaged at this point in his movie career, doesn't help us believe anything about the Baker character...because there is no Baker character as essayed by Martin. It's remarkable, but I can't remember another performance from a major star like Martin that so thoroughly disappears on screen. With immaculately tailored duds that look right off a Rodeo Drive rack (not even any dirt on them), Dino's lined, overly-tanned face (carefully made-up) shows no signs of life here.
You can't even say he looks bored; "bored" still indicates consciousness on some level―he's border-line catatonic in something big, and it's disturbing (and ultimately depressing) to see (he even has difficulty pulling himself up onto that horse, as if he just doesn't have the strength to face another goofball movie role). Where's that laid-back but skilled charmer who impressed us in diverse roles like The Young Lions, Some Came Running, Career, or Rio Bravo or Kiss Me, Stupid? He's gone by this point, replaced by an automaton who isn't so much contemptuous of his audience as he is operating on another astral plane altogether, deep, deep inside himself. As for the movie's finale, what's the point of massacring Estevez's army when we've never been introduced to the "enemy" prior to that final sequence? What does it all mean to us, the audience? This is Baker's "something big?" To mow down faceless bandits (with almost no blood for that GP-rating―a deliberate, telling detail that makes the massacre a grotesque cheat)? Don't get me wrong: I'm all for senseless violence in movies...but this isn't even exciting, let alone motivated.
Come to think of it...that's as a good a summation of something big as you need.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.