When three men, claiming to be friends of his father, ask young half Native American Max Sand (Steve McQueen) the way to his parents’ depleted gold mine, Max doesn’t hesitate in giving them directions. Something seems up, so he heads after them, but upon arriving discovers the three men have tortured and killed his folks, even skinning his squaw mother, once they had found out the mine had only produced one nugget in the past two years. Max burns down the house, not wanting anyone to see his family in that condition, and heads out into the world with just his horse, a rifle, $8.00 to his name and a vivid memory of the three men who killed his parents, and who he will not rest until they have been killed by his hand.
This is the very definition of episodic cinema. The plot of the film, itself based on Harold Robbins’ novel The Carpetbaggers, is very clearly split into sections. There’s the initial setup for the film, imbuing Max with the motivation for why he must track and kill the three men. Next, there’s his learning about the world, including being taught how to shoot by kindly gun-maker Cord (Brian Keith), before systematically working his way through the three men, played by Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy and Martin Landau (!). The three men never appear together after their initial encounter with the Sands, so Max’s mission is revolved based on hearsay, desperation and a little blind luck, just as it should be in the movies, but unfortunately it did take Max a little too long, as the film began to drag as it reached the credits at the 128 minute mark. That being said, I’ve just finished watching McQueen’s 3-hour long The Sand Pebbles (review pending), and by comparison Nevada Smith just flew by.
A great deal was packed into the extended length of this film though, with the plot taking many turns in tone that I wasn’t expecting whatsoever. To begin with I was anticipating a fairly standard average-guy-avenges-parents’-death, but this was at times a coming of age film – before meeting Cord, Max cannot shoot, read, write or count, and has never even been in a bar before, yet plans to find and kill three armed and proficient killers – a gang-based western in a similar line to the first act of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and a prison escape film, a sub-genre that I’m more than a little fond of. The prison element, in which Pat Hingle is another inmate, seemed a little contrived – the second name on Max’s list has just been incarcerated, so Max deliberately botches a bank robbery so he can end up in the same labour camp – but this only goes to highlight how little – or possibly how much – Max thinks ahead about his plans. He doesn’t see anything other than his mission, up to the point where when scantily clad women throw themselves at him, he instead climbs out the window and carries on towards his goal.
The final act is the weakest in my opinion, and the score overall was never quite sweeping enough, but the scenery looked beautiful – it was shot in California’s Inyo National Forest and Owens Valley – and there were some great shots, my favourite being McQueen on horseback, practising shooting dirt clods thrown by Cord during his training. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get over how much McQueen resembled Willem Dafoe in this film, but this didn’t deter too much, as overall it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience from a surprise film I’d never heard of amongst McQueen’s career.
Choose Film 8/10