March 5, 2018


Starring Burt Lancaster, Lee Remick, Jim Hutton, Brian Keith, Pamela Tiffin, Donald Pleasence, Martin Landau. Directed by John Sturges. (1965/165 min).

Considering the impressive cast and a director responsible for some of our greatest classic westerns, one would naturally assume The Hallelujah Trail (on Blu-Ray in its original "roadshow" version) would be a slam-dunk. But the film never takes flight, despite threatening to do so every 15 minutes or so.

Winter's coming and the mining town of Denver is running out of booze. The townsfolk arrange for the transport of 40 wagons loaded with whiskey, to be delivered by cantankerous company man Frank Wallingham (Brain Keith). Cavalry Colonel Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) assigns a troop led by Captain Slater (Jim Hutton) to escort the wagon train just in case it's targeted by Indians (which it is). Meanwhile, a zealous women's temperance movement, led by feisty Cora Templeton (Lee Remick) also plan to get their hands on the shipment in order to destroy it, thus saving the citizens of Denver from themselves. To Gearhart's chagrin, his daughter, Louise (Pamela Tiffin), is also part of this group, and now he feels compelled to lead a troop of his own to protect them.

Burt takes care of a scary bug.
Intended as an epic comedy, The Hallelujah Trail has some fun moments. The cast looks like they're having a good time and Elmer Bernstein's score helps maintain a light tone. But unlike similar madcap comedies of the era, the film seldom rises above mildly amusing. Many scenes take a looong time setting up  hilarious payoffs, but for a movie running nearly three hours, genuine laughs are few and far between.

"So, refuse to scrub my back?"
I think part of the problem is that there's loads of talent on both sides of the camera, but few of them are really renowned for their comedic skills. The Hallelujah Trail looks, moves and sounds like a classic John Sturges western. No problem there; the film is suitably sprawling, picturesque and the action scenes are expertly choreographed. He doesn't demonstrate a keen eye for comedy, though, and writer John Gay (whose background was mostly in dramas & thrillers) doesn't provide a particularly clever screenplay to work with. Perhaps everyone was depending on the cast to find inherent humor in the basic premise. But while Burt Lancaster is one of the big screen's greatest icons, have you ever found him funny? Traditionally, Lee Remick, Donald Pleasence and Martin Landau have never been a barrel of laughs, either. No one is bad in their roles, but there's something slightly amiss when a movie's narrator has all the funniest bits.

By the time we get to the bonkers climax - which is almost maddeningly nonsensical - the film has pretty-much exhausted its welcome. A shame, really. With its butt-numbing length and the amount of talent involved, The Hallelujah Trail shouldn't be a movie that only works in fits and starts. I'm sure, however, it has its share of fans, who'll be pleased to know the picture and sound quality of this disc is terrific.


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