Why a late 60s Western won India’s heart.
In the early 1950s a new trend emerged in the Hollywood Western. Directors like Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and Jacques Tourneur seemed to be leaning towards a darker, grittier form of the genre that reflected the political and social tensions of postwar America. Films like John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow, and especially Fred Zinneman’s High Noon crackled with disenchantment. These films seemed to offer an implicit critique of a conformist society that some saw as gripped by Cold War fear and paranoia, and others believed to be vulnerable to deadly threats both internal and external.
Boasting stellar performances by Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, Zinneman’s High Noon came to be the most celebrated such Western of its time for its depiction of a federal marshal betrayed by the good citizens of a gangster-plagued frontier town. This was in part because the film could be read as a disturbing allegory of the anti-Communist witch-hunt inspired by Senator Joe McCarthy and which was tearing Hollywood apart. It is a reading that gains strength from the fact that High Noon was written and produced by Carl Foreman, a former Communist who was summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the making of the film and who was subsequently blacklisted by the studios for refusing to “name names”.
A decade and a half later, in 1969, Foreman, long exiled in England but now partially rehabilitated in Hollywood, was writing and producing another Western. This was a Western of a different kind, one that its makers hoped would be suited to the changing America of the late sixties: J. Lee Thompson’s Mackenna’s Gold. Thompson (Cape Fear) and Foreman (Bridge over the River Kwai) had collaborated earlier in the decade on the huge international hit, The Guns of Navarone. Now they hoped to recreate that movie’s collaborative magic with a story about a ruthless bandit who forces a US marshal to lead him and his motley followers to a legendary trove of Apache gold.
Mackenna’s Gold is, of course, even today one of the best-known and best-loved American Westerns in India. It is also significant in other ways.
For one thing the film can be seen as a document of a Hollywood in transition, and the efforts of the studios to cater to the tastes of the young and hip, while also satisfying older moviegoers. After all, among other nods to the new flower-power ethos, Mackenna’s featured a score by African-American wunderkind composer Quincy Jones, a title song sung by Puerto Rican guitar hero Jose Feliciano, and a nude bathing scene featuring Julie Newmar as a fierce Indian squaw. At the same time, Mackenna’s boasted the more traditional charms of long-established stars like Gregory Peck, Edward G. Robinson, Eli Wallach, Anthony Quayle and Burgess Meredith.
None of these advantages secured box office success for the film in the United States. Nevertheless, it was a major hit elsewhere, especially in India, and also in other parts of the subcontinent, in Central Asia and in the countries of the Soviet bloc.
It is easy to find reasons why the film failed to do as well commercially in America. Westerns that flourished at the box office at that time tended to star younger actors like Clint Eastwood (who was originally slated to play Mackenna), Paul Newman or Robert Redford. The critically fashionable edge of the genre was represented by the films of directors such as Sam Peckinpah (his Wild Bunch was made in 1969) and more or less ironic takes on the Western such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy.
In contrast to these (and the hard-core revisionist Westerns to come in the 1970s), Mackenna’s Gold seemed old fashioned. It was more conventionally plotted and told than the “spaghetti” Westerns of Sergio Leone and lacked the eroticised violence of a Peckinpah Western. Nor did it, with its multiple casting, have a focus on the lone mythic heroic figure of the classical Western, something that contributed to the success of a film like True Grit.
However, the fate of Mackenna’s Gold outside the US was an entirely different matter. In India it remained the top Hollywood grosser in history until blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Titanic came along. Even worldwide hits such as Jaws and Star Wars would not make as much money in India as Mackenna’s did. The film went through countless re-runs until well into the 1980s and could be seen in cinema halls across India, including small venues in the medium-size towns of North India.
(The filmmaker Pritish Nandy likes to tell the story of a friend who brought a 16mm print of the film to Bombay and then took it around the countryside in a van with a projector. Although the film was in English, the enterprise went down so well in village India that Nandy’s friend made a small fortune and bought a seafront property in Mumbai.)
Mackenna’s Gold also had a huge influence on Indian film-makers. This can be seen from quotations of its acting styles, plot elements and even sartorial styles in countless Hindi films in the 1970s. A director-actor like Feroz Khan, who affected a cowboy style in real life, has quoted the film a number of times in his career, in films such as Dharmatma (1975) that he directed or in Kala Sona, made the same year, in which he acted.
The film was remade by Bollywood by the director Harish Shah in 1988 as Zalzala. It is also possible to find a DVD version of the original Mackenna’s Gold dubbed in Hindi and titled Mastanka Sona (The Dude’s Gold). And even today you find Mackenna’s Gold cakes and Mackenna’s Gold pens being sold in Indian markets. All such invocations of the film endorse the status of the original as a cult object in Indian cultural memories, a landmark event in the cultural history of post-Independence India, a memory that persists over four decades since the film was first released.
It is interesting to speculate about the reasons for the massive success of Mackenna’s Gold in India and its uneven reception elsewhere. After all, we tend to think of 20th-century American pop culture as being universal in its appeal, especially given the worldwide fame of figures like Charlie Chaplin or the global success of movies like The Sound of Music.
The success of Mackenna’s Gold in India as opposed to its failure in the US contradicts that notion and reveals a gap between the tastes of the US public and foreign publics. Indeed the very factors that contributed to the failure of the film in the US may have helped its cause in India.
Gregory Peck for instance may no longer have been a top Western star in the America of 1969, but he was definitely the reigning American male lead in the minds of Indian film going crowds.
The film’s traditional storytelling may not have appealed to American audiences, but it went down well with the mass of Indian moviegoers. They were presumably delighted to see a well-orchestrated filmic spectacle as opposed to the messiness of a standard Bombay film of the era. Besides which, the mainstream film going public in India has, on the whole, preferred middle-of-the-road fare when it comes to appreciation of imported cinema. And so it was with Mackenna’s Gold too – a film whose stories are told in a crisp, direct way without unnecessary convolutions in plot or self-conscious idiosyncrasies of directorial style.
What made the film’s success a landmark event in India’s history of film going was that it came in a period when a new generation of post-independence Indians were entering cinema halls (increasingly air-conditioned) in larger numbers than ever before. Its ability to reach out to audiences cutting across class lines in the cities and medium-size towns of India was unprecedented for a Hollywood movie. For the first time there were non-gentrified audiences watching A-list Hollywood films in large numbers. The success of Mackenna’s Gold therefore ushered in a new era in the patterns of public film going in India.
This shift also helps to explain the success of a number of other Hollywood films in the period. But neither that, nor the film’s straightforward plotting and storytelling, explain its unique success among Indian audiences. Nor do they explain the huge cross-class success of the film, for no other Hollywood film of the period with similar virtues garnered the mass viewership that Mackenna’s achieved. So what was it about this film that caught the mass imagination of India circa 1969?
To answer this, it helps to look sideways at the history of Bombay cinema around this time. From 1971 onwards, Bombay produced a number of extremely popular films belonging to what is popularly referred to as the daku (bandit) genre, which in very substantial measure invoked the desolate landscapes riven by masculine violence that we see in Hollywood Westerns like Mackenna’s. These films reference the frontier violence of the Western to comment on the upheaval in India’s countryside at a time of great economic change, when hoarding, smuggling and black marketeering were at their height.
The hero in these daku films would often be a social marginal, usually with a history of urban crime, who comes to the rescue of an agrarian community from the depredations of bandits. The hero makes up for his past immorality by fighting for justice in the countryside and gains redemption by introducing himself into a new community – that of the villagers whom he defends.
This new daku genre included classics such as Raj Khosla’s 1971 Mera Gaon Mera Desh(My Village, My Land), Narendra Bedi’s 1974 Khote Sikkey(Counterfeit Coins), Ali Raza’s 1974 Pran Jaye Par Vachan Na Jaye(I Might Lose my Life, but I Shall Stand by my Word) and Ramesh Sippy’s 1975 Sholay (Embers) among others. It rehashed an older Bombay film formula typified by the urban crime movies produced at Navketan studios in the 1950s and which often starred Dev Anand whom some called the Gregory Peck of India.
This formula also dovetailed with international narrative conventions found in films like Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and its Hollywood remake, John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven. It is a substantially different plotline from Mackenna’s for sure, but what is pertinent is not the similarity of stories but the overlap of cultural images – dry dusty frontier zones of nations and societies peopled by gun-toting social marginals having it out in violent and socially disruptive ways. When we look at the huge success of the homegrown Indian bandit film, we begin to see that Mackenna’s success in India was some kind of harbinger, a rehearsal for this.
The film’s depiction of an honest man’s struggle against men “who will do anything for gold”, to quote the title song, in a landscape that looks sucked dry by human greed went down well in an India that was beginning to groan under the weight of rampant corruption in business, politics and governance.
Mackenna’s seemed to contain echoes of the violent turbulence at the heart of an Indian society that was still agrarian in its values, still prone to resolving economic and political tensions through feudal gun-battles.
Beyond ideology and implicit reminders of Indian social struggles, there were other aspects of the film that resonated strongly with Indian audiences. These included the character of the blind man played by Edward G. Robinson. The blind man symbolising time and destiny has been a favourite trope of Bombay cinema from the earliest period of its history.
There was also the sex appeal of Julie Newmar and her famous nude bathing sequence culminating in an underwater fight with Swedish co-star Camilla Sparv. Her dark looks would have had a particular appeal for Indian audiences or at least allowed them to incorporate her attractions within an Indian cultural context. (Interestingly Newmar had played Eastern “exotics” in her earlier career. Indeed she was one of Hollwood’s favourite belly dancers of the 1950s and two of her early films Slaves of Babylon and Serpent of the Nile have achieved kitsch cult status.)
No doubt the bronze faces of the dust-encrusted Mexicans and Native Americans in the film’s bandit gang would have helped them “pass” as Indians as well. But it was very likely the presence of the Egyptian star Omar Sharif as Peck’s chief adversary Colorado that enabled Indian audiences to identify with the film and its characters.
Other characters in the film, especially the murderous cavalry sergeant played by Telly Savalas also resonated powerfully, and over the years would find equivalents in Bombay cinema, for example, the villain played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda in Ramesh Sippy’s 1980 film Shaan (Honour).
Finally, the music of the film had a powerful influence on Bombay film scores, most notably on the work of R.D. Burman, the leading music director of the 1970s. We would hear something of Mackenna’s Gold in many, many films throughout the 1970s and after, including the biggest hit of Indian film history, the bandit film of 1975, Sholay.
And yet, despite the common cultural landscape that links an imported film like Mackenna’s to the great Bombay bandit films, the movies it inspired may have stood the test of time better than their Hollywood predecessor. Today’s younger Indian filmgoers might find Mackenna’s a dated affair while the Bombay bandit films remain live reference points for Indian film-makers, especially as they quote the historic milestones of Bombay cinema in their own work.
But to enter into such issues of influences and comparisons would be to miss the more interesting point. This is that once upon a time a film was made in another culture that managed to appeal to the psychology of the Indian mass public in extraordinary and unprecedented ways, eliciting within that public’s unconscious a recognition of the forces at play within itself. Mackenna’s Gold also inspired a turning point in the history of Indian cinema. Such are the joys of the history of international cinema where gold that might fail to glister somewhere suddenly finds critical mass in another context and sets off a chain of spectacular creative responses that create new cinematic joys for the world to behold.