The Hallelujah Trail Review
John Sturges had just come off The Great Escape two years previously when he made this, released in 1965. Five years previously, Sturges had directed The Magnificent Seven, still one of the most highly regarded westerns. He must have seemed like a sure bet for bringing Bill Gulick's novel, Hallelujah Train, to cinema screens. Certainly, Sturges' history would not have indicated a problem but it really must have been clear very early on during filming that things were not going to go as planned.
For a start, The Hallelujah Trail is a spoof western starring a cast better known for serious roles, including Burt Lancaster and Lee Remick. Sure, the Zucker Abrahams Zucker team later made good with much the same idea years later with Airplane and Top Secret! but the key difference, however, would be that these films had scripts that worked and were funny. The Hallelujah Trail belongs to the school of comedy that states where the jokes don't work, just shout loudly.
With the film running to a very, very long 139mins and with the cast shouting over one another with a succession of jokes that simply don't work, a headache soon sets in and you begin to wish that MGM had included a 12-pack of Solpadeine as an extra with the DVD.
The plot of the film concerns Col Thadeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) as a beleaguered cavalry officer required to escort a shipment of whiskey to Denver that has been supplied by Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith) to ease a local shortage. So far, so simple, but the overland wagon train is at risk from a group of temperance women led by Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick) who wish to destroy the whiskey and a group of Native Americans led by Chief Walks-Stooped-Over (Martin Landau) who would like to divert the whiskey for their own use. To further complicate matters, there is a group of striking Irishmen who were tasked with driving the wagons and the population of Denver who, under the guidance of visionary/drunk Oracle Jones (Donald Pleasence), attempt to guide the whiskey to the city.
Funny, no? Take any film purporting to be a comedy with so many groups coming together in the one place, over one object, in this case the wagon train, with a mix of opposing objectives and ask yourself if they have ever been funny.
OK, so not funny, but amusing? Yes, mildly but only concerning the relationships between Pleasence and Keith and between Lancaster and Remick. It is a shame, however, that Pleasence and Keith only get together roughly halfway into the film but they do react well to one another and the final scenes of them sinking into, then setting up home beside, quicksand provide some of the better moments.
Regarding Lancaster and Remick, it really is no surprise why they were stars. The relationship between the two of them here is admittedly only slightly funny but it is warm, evident from their very first scenes together at Cora Templeton Massingale's temperance rally, through to the final scenes in the church.
As an indication of how this doesn't really work, half the running time of the film is taken up with these groups getting together in the one place. That's over an hour of little more than scene setting. This is followed by a shoot out in a sandstorm, where no one gets shot. The second half of the film concerns subterfuge in the wagon train as every group tries to achieve their end by more delicate means until there is a fairly raucous ending.
The general breakdown, therefore, is of really poor attempts at madcap humour, followed by a more relaxed and enjoyable section post-intermission and ending with a loud, yet dull, ending where the film tries to bring everything to a conclusion but in a messy fashion where you just end up not caring for anything but the appearence of the end credits.
Other than the score by Elmer Bernstein, there is little to recommend it - the Native American group do start well, with rather a cynical edge, ripping off the European settlers but by the end of the film, they are dumb fools who confuse the popping of champagne corks with gunfire. The striking Irish have little point here and I suspect this may be a symptom of 1965 US political satire. As for the population of Denver, they do nothing but set up jokes for Donald Pleasence.
Unlike this film, I'm going to keep this review short for, when watching The Hallelujah Trail, it brought home to me just how it feels when things drag on that ought to be so much shorter.
It would be hard to set a western in landscapes that look as good as this and not have it look amazing, particularly when filmed in what appears to be summer, with such bright blue skies as this. A number of scenes look simply stunning with gorgeous colours, a deep focus all the way to the horizon and a shimmering beauty, enhanced by a wonderful cast who the cinema rightly made stars, particularly Lee Remick.
It's a beautiful film, it really is, but like a brass band marching through Portmeirion, the beauty can be drowned out by the noise and this is a very noisy film. In order to best appreciate the look of this film, it requires you to look past and beyond the action into the stunning backgrounds and locations.
Regarding the disc, it is beautifully transferred anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and retains the depth of colour present in the original print. MGM really ought to be proud of the picture quality here as it is fantastic.
The film has been transferred with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, which, given that it has been remixed from the original stereo soundtrack, does an acceptable job but it's not amazing. Admittedly, there is very little hiss but there is also very little sound coming from the rear channels. There is good separation across the front left and right channels but there is nothing here that a 2.0 soundtrack could not have coped with.
Only a trailer, presented in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 with a mono soundtrack. The picture quality is terrible with very noticeable blurring and scratching. That's it, so you won't be buying this for the extras.
This does not come recommended. There are only five reasons why you should watch this film and of those, western landscapes look just as good in The Searchers and Lancaster, Remick, Pleasence and Keith are better in other roles in other films.
For a comedy, it isn't funny and for a western, it just isn't epic enough. My only recommendation would be if you were a collector of any of the actors, the director, westerns or films with great Elmer Bernstein scores though, even then, you'd be better off looking elsewhere.
Now, if studios are looking at preparing Burt Lancaster films for a release on DVD and VHS, can I suggest that Columbia Tristar have a look at Castle Keep?