In The Pardoner’s Tale, three drunk scallywags stumble out of a pub in the middle of the Black Death. In their alcohol inspired brilliance, they decide to go looking for Death so they can kill him in retaliation. A strange old man hears their request, and informs them they can find Death beneath a particular tree.
When they arrive, they find not the Grim Reaper figure they (and readers) were expecting, but a bag of gold. Greed overtakes them, and they wind up killing each other.
MacKenna’s Gold is that story. It’s also a remake of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I would argue that Geoffrey Chaucer was able to get “Gold is death, greed is bad” a lot more effectively and simply than either film, but that’s just me. Besides, if MacKenna’s Gold stripped the movie down to its essentials, you wouldn’t have a corny theme song (which was at the heart of long running David Letterman gag), ponderous narration, psychedelic effects, and terrible miniature work.
You also wouldn’t have gotten to see Omar Sharif or Julie Newmar naked. What? Yes. And you thought gratuitous nudity didn’t exist before the 1970s.
Now you can concentrate again, I hope.
Stories of buried treasure go back to the dawn of man, I suppose. I find them particularly fascinating when set firmly in the United States, because they’re an unconscious metaphor for our entire history. America came about because Christopher Columbus wanted gold. Settlers pushed further and further West looking for it. Sure, in the meantime you had people saying “I could build a farm here!”, but always ahead of them were men determined to strike it rich.
Prospecting doesn’t make for that interesting of a story, though. So in fiction, the gold hunt is usually for some fabled treasure held by the Native Americans. MacKenna’s Gold is no exception, as the gold in question is held by the Apache, who guard it because their spirits tell them to. One old Apache knows its location. He has the misfortune of coming across MacKenna (Gregory Peck), and essentially cursing him with the knowledge of its location. Peck burns the map, but is famous around the region for having a photographic memory. A notorious bandit named Colorado (Omar Sharif) all flashing smiles and menace takes him hostage
The situation just keeps getting crazier. The entire town (led by Eli Wallach) finds out about the treasure. The U.S. Calvary (led by Telly Savalas) finds out about it. The body count of horses and man grows. Only MacKenna is able to resist the greedy allure of the gold, and just wants to survive. Survive he does, despite ragged rope bridges, rushing rapids, knife fights and gun battles. His shirt doesn’t even get torn.
MacKenna’s Gold has been largely forgotten (not undeservedly), but watching it will provoke a sense of deja vu. The rapids and rickety bridge look like just the kind of place you might lose your shirt or hat. The hunt for gold centers on a canyon. The location of this canyon can only be discovered at sunrise, when it will shed a blinding and painful light over the viewer. To get into the canyon, you have to ride down all kinds of hairpin twists and turns. And the mere idea of it is enough to turn MacKenna’s Nordic girlfriend into a gibbering mess of greed. “It could be yours, MacKenna! Yours and mine!”
Coincidence? Could be. Until you find out George Lucas was a production assistant on the film.
You find interesting things when you go hunting for gold. That’s the message I’m going to take away from this. Well, that and the sight of a naked Sharif.