Monday, February 21, 2022

#2,712. The Hallelujah Trail (1965) - The Wild West


I first saw The Hallelujah Trail on television in the '80s. My father noticed it was playing one afternoon, and told me it was “hilarious”, so the two of us sat down and watched it.

Admittedly, I remember very little about this initial viewing, in part because it occurred about 40 years ago, but also because the movie itself isn’t particularly memorable. There are a few good performances and a funny scene or two, but other than that, The Hallelujah Trail doesn’t linger in the mind once it’s over.

It’s 1867, and the small mining town of Denver, Colorado is days away from running out of whisky. To ensure their next shipment arrives before winter sets in, they place an emergency order with whisky manufacturer Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith).

Fearing that his wagon train will be attacked by Indians, Wallingham requests that a nearby Cavalry brigade, under the command of Col. Thadeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster), accompany his shipment into Denver. But Wallingham and Gearhart will have more than an Injun raiding party to contend with, because temperance leader Cora Massingale (Lee Remick) also caught wind of the whisky shipment, and along with her army of volunteers she intends to prevent this “evil brew” from ever reaching its destination.

The Hallelujah Trail was directed by John Sturges, who helmed such classics as The Magnificent Seven, Gunfight at the OK Corral, and The Great Escape. While this 1965 comedy / western may seem a bit out of his wheelhouse, the movie features some well-executed action scenes, chief among them a desert showdown (during a sandstorm) between the Cavalry, the Native Americans, the Temperance volunteers, and a Denver Citizens Brigade intent on protecting Wallingham’s valuable cargo. This sequence, as well as a handful of others, showed that Sturges, even in a comedy, could still generate plenty of excitement.

Burt Lancaster is also predictably excellent in what is essentially the lead role, playing a gruff commanding officer who finds himself in a very difficult predicament. Alas, the supporting players are more hit-and-miss; as Col. Gearhart’s subordinate, Tim Hutton isn’t given much to do at all, while Brian Keith is often over-the-top as the agitated businessman set to profit from the whiskey. Lee Remick, though, is strong as the leader of the temperance movement, and her character proves a good foil for Gearhart’s by-the-book mentality. The film’s best comedic performance, however, is delivered by Donald Pleasance, who plays Oracle, the drunken fortune teller.

Unfortunately, aside from Pleasance’s scenes, I didn’t laugh all that much through the rest of The Hallelujah Trail; the sequences featuring the Native Americans (one of whom is played by Martin Landau) fell flat, as did the entire finale at Quicksand pass (bet you can guess what happens there). On top of that, the romance which slowly blossoms between Col. Gearhart and Cora Massingale isn’t the least bit convincing.

When all was said and done, The Hallelujah Trail had Lancaster, Pleasance, a few strong Sturges-helmed action scenes, and not much else. And for a movie that runs 165 minutes, that’s a definite problem!
Rating: 5 out of 10

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