MacKenna’s Gold: Gregory Peck’s Last Great Western Movie

“MacKenna’s Gold” is an overlooked western. The great Gregory Peck plays a marshall who’s given a map to a lost canyon filled with Apache gold. But to reach it he’ll have to travel with a gang of desperados, and face a greedy mob. The gold might turn out to be only a legend — but throughout the movie it stirs up real human passions.

It’s one of the last great westerns, filmed in 1969, which meant it had access to some terrific actors. McKenna’s progress is bedeviled by Omar Sharif — playing an outlaw named “Colorado” — as well as Telly Savalas (who plays a ruthless cavalry officer). Peck’s part was originally offered to Clint Eastwood, and there’s more familiar names in the production. A young George Lucas reportedly observed the shooting as a film student — and the movie benefits from a grand western score by music legend Quincy Jones.

A narrator describes the legend of a lost canyon “rich with gold” that had never found — and the western fun begins. The movie opens with some great aerial photography of mysterious rock formations and canyons. During the sequence Jose Feliciano sings an eerie song about the “Old Turkey Buzzard” who waits for each man’s date with fate. And yes, this includes the men who scheme and “die for gold on the rocks below…”

MacKenna's Gold

The watchful buzzard passes over an old Indian on a horse. The Indian hides behind a rock, and trains his rifle on Gregory Peck. Gun shots echo around the canyon as the Indian tries to kill the man (who he mistakenly believes is pursuing him). In the end Peck refuses to kill the old Apache, and he even remains skeptical of his map to the lost gold canyon. But viewing the map has sealed his fate, since the outlaw Colorado wants no rivals in his own pursuit of the treasure.

The film shows a man at the mercy of another’s fears — and it’s a story which screenwriter Carl Foreman knew well. He’d written the classic western “High Noon,” another screenplay about a sheriff at odds with his town. It was nominated for an Oscar — but Foreman was then blacklisted as an uncooperative witness before Joe McCarthy’s infamous Communist-hunting committee. This is one of just ten more screenplays he’d write over the rest of his life — and one of only three from the 1960s. It’s easy to wonder if this movie is capturing a special wisdom from the screenwriter’s own life.

The desperate hunt for lost gold is no legend — the Depression saw a real-life search for this Apache gold in New Mexico which to this day has never been found. To this mix the script adds a mob of townspeople, acting on a rumor that the gold’s location has finally been discovered. There’s a British man, the town’s newspaper editor, a blind man, and even a preacher, with more great Hollywood actors bring the parts to life (including Burgess Meredith, Eli Wallach, and Edward G. Robinson). They’re listed in the credits as “The gentlemen from Hadleyburg” — which is the script’s clever allusion to story by Mark Twain, which imagines an entire town corrupted by a stranger’s promise of gold.

The movie is full of twists along the way. Suddenly there’s a man coming up the trail — the bandit’s old partner! All the bandit’s men point their guns on him. But then the partner’s friends emerge from behind the hills and the cactuses — pointing their guns back. And there’s a final question — will the cavalry protect them or betray them?

Especially when there’s a lost canyon waiting that’s full of secret gold.