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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle




Comedy westerns are tricky to pull off, especially if you're trying to please both western fans and comedy fans.  BLAZING SADDLES did it by being a merciless no-holds-barred burlesque of sagebrush sagas that skewered all the familiar tropes in hilariously irreverent and farcical fashion.  BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID succeeded by being delightfully witty while still delivering a genuinely gritty, slam-bang western that fans of the genre could appreciate.

What director John Sturges and company try to achieve with their sprawling comedy horse opera THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL (Olive Films, 1965) is no less than a spectacular blockbuster of epic proportions (with a running time of 165 minutes, no less) intended to inundate the viewer in an avalanche of eye-filling thrills and gut-busting laughter. 

As a sort of cross-country road picture filled with familiar faces and as much raucous action as he could squeeze out of an army of stunt people, it's as though Sturges were trying to come up with a western equivalent of the 1963 comedy free-for-all IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD.


Unfortunately, the man who was so adept at serious all-star epics such as THE GREAT ESCAPE and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN comes up short when applying his considerable talents to the field of comedy.  THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL blusters, bellows, wheezes, and beats its chest in a desperate effort to make us laugh with a furious flurry of thundering action and mugging slapstick that barely has a single genuinely funny line of dialogue or bit of business in its entire running time. 

The pseudo-solemn narration by John Dehner sets a mock-serious tone that never really goes anywhere, as he describes the impending disaster faced by an 1800s Denver, Colorado that is about to spend a long, hard winter with no whiskey.  That is, until freight tycoon Brian Keith orders forty wagon loads of the stuff to be delivered from back East across the desert through Indian country. 

Naturally, that much firewater is hard to resist for Chief Five Barrels (Robert Wilke), his comic sidekick Chief Walks-Stooped-Over (Martin Landau), and the rest of his thirsty braves. If you think Wilke and Landau are either convincing or funny as hooch-happy Indians, I have some oceanfront property in Idaho that might interest you.


The whiskey train also attracts the attention of a pretty, charismatic crusader against alcohol, the twice-widowed Mrs. Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick), who vows to lead her fervent female followers to head it off at the pass while Colonel Thaddeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) reluctantly leads a regiment of cavalry soldiers to ride guard on the whole thing. 

Lancaster is all bullish bluster as Gearhart, with nary a corpuscle of comic talent in his whole brawny body but with a boxer's determination to pummel laughs out of the mirthless screenplay. Jim Hutton and Pamela Tiffin have the thankless task of playing his callow captain and rebellious daughter, who are in love, while stone-faced character actor John Anderson is a startlingly unlikely choice as his comic foil Sgt. Buell.  

As hymn-humming Cora Templeton Massingale, Remick is utterly eye-pleasing but about as appealing as the whelp she and Gregory Peck churned out in THE OMEN with her sanctimonious teatotalism delivered with a suffragette's zeal (a deadly combination) that had me despising her pushy, self-righteous character from the git-go. 


With striking teamsters on one side and boozehound Indians on the other--not to mention Cora and the ladies' anti-fun brigade--Brian Keith stomps and screams his way through the role of whiskey tycoon Wallingham, abetted by none other than an almost unrecognizable Donald Pleasance as a skinny, bearded frontiersman named "Oracle" who supposedly foretells the future when primed by offerings of free whiskey. 

Other familiar faces include Denverites Dub Taylor and Whit Bissell, Noam Pitlick as an Army translator who only knows English, Hope Summers, Val Avery, and Bing Russell (Kurt's dad). Elmer Bernstein provides the bombastic score.

Once the various groups converge on the trail to Denver, director Sturges stages a succession of overblown action sequences--one of them during a full-scale dust storm in which none of the various combatants can see each other--and packs them with shooting, limb-flailing stunts, racing wagons, thundering hooves, and other doggedly unfunny action as characters commit acts of artless slapstick against each other with a rubber-faced fury. 

All of which adds up to one long, joyless, tediously unentertaining western romp that wants to be funny so bad you can almost see it sweating from the effort.  Even with an overture, intermission, and exit music and a running time of almost three hours, not to mention some prodigious talent on both sides of the camera, THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL fails to muster as many laughs as a humble episode of "F Troop."


Order the Blu-ray or DVD From Olive Films


Rated: NR (not rated)
Subtitles: English (optional)
Video: 2.35:1 aspect ratio; color
Bonus features: trailer




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