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A film that struck a chord with audiences like no other

Many still remember the runaway success of Mackenna’s Gold in India. Partab Ramchand analyses why the film is remembered fondly more than half a century after its initial release

Hollywood films have always been popular in Madras and several of them have enjoyed extended runs. Whatever the genre, epics or war dramas, Westerns or comedies, thrillers or horror, the movies have been well received. Musicals too have enjoyed success as My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music have exemplified.

All the Bond films from Dr No onwards have been eagerly awaited. Epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago as well as Biblical stories like Quo Vadis, Samson and Delilah, The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur have drawn large audiences. War films like The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Longest Day, The Guns of Navarone and The Great Escape have thrilled movie goers in the city.

Spaghetti Westerns have also found a ready audience and, here again, while the films have been made in Italy, the major stars like Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef have been from Hollywood. Of course, there are also films whose release has been awaited with a lot of excitement. These include Jaws, The Godfather and Star Wars, thanks to their stupendous success abroad.     

But if there is one Hollywood film that really struck a chord with the movie-going public in Madras that is now Chennai, it has to be Mackenna’s Gold. It was the third movie to be released at Devi Theatre (after Sweet Charity and Marooned) in mid-1970 and by the time it completed its run it was 1971, making it a total of some 35 weeks, unheard of for an English movie in the country. For repeat audiences, the J Lee Thomson-directed Western starring Gregory Peck and Omar Shariff, which had its original release in the USA in 1969, has had no equal, for there were several who during its initial run saw it more than half a dozen times.

Seeing it half a century later on TV or YouTube obviously cannot have the same impact without the Super Panavision 70 effect complete with stereophonic sound – just about the latest technology around those days. All the same it is not difficult to fathom its runaway popularity. Simply put it had a bit of everything – romance, comedy, thrills, suspense, action, shoot-outs.

The script (Carl Foreman) and the handling made it perfect entertainment for the average movie fan if not the sophisticated film-goer. In short, it was a foreign version of an Indian commercial film typified by the last fight on the mountain of gold between the good man (Peck) and the bad man (Shariff). 

Of course, one reason for Mackenna’s Gold being a super hit was also the ensemble cast, for besides the two major stars, it also had Telly Savalas, Keenan Wynn, Julie Newmar, Camilla Sparv and Ted Cassidy in major roles. There were also several well-known names among the Gentlemen from Hadleyburg who join in for the hunt for gold. These guest artists included Eli Wallach, Edward G Robinson, Anthony Quayle, Lee J Cobb, Burgess Meredith and Raymond Massey.

The film had superb camera work by Joseph MacDonald and some of the images are remembered fondly even today with all the vast improvement in computer-aided cinematic technology. And cementing its popularity was the music by Quincy Jones with the theme tune and Jose Feliciano’s Old Turkey Buzzard being hummed till this day. Victor Jory with his deep voice maintained the thread in the script and made the narration interesting. And at a little over two hours, the film, never once slackening in pace, made for the perfect entertainment package. 

Interestingly enough, Mackenna’s Gold was not a box office success in the US. The press in particular panned the picture with noted film critic Judith Crist being dismissive. “Twelve year olds of all ages might tolerate it,” she wrote. But in India it was a very different story. Besides Madras, it was a runaway hit in all the major cities and it remained the highest Hollywood grosser in India until blockbusters like Jurassic Park (1993) and Titanic (1997) came along, though these pictures did not have the record run enjoyed by Mackenna’s Gold.

Even worldwide, super hits such as Jaws and Star Wars did not make as much money in India as Mackenna’s Gold after taking inflation into account. The film went through countless re-runs until well into the 1980s and could be seen in cinema halls across the country not just in the major cities but also in several smaller places.  

(The writer is a veteran sports writer who spent his career working for The Indian Express and The Telegraph and Sportsworld. He has more than a passing interest in films and music.)