Mackenna's Gold

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Mackenna's Gold
Original movie poster for the film Mackenna's Gold.jpg
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Produced by Carl Foreman
Dimitri Tiomkin
Screenplay by Carl Foreman
Based on Mackenna's Gold
1963 novel
by Heck Allen
and, in alphabetical order, The Gentlemen from Hadleyburg:
Narrated by Victor Jory
Music by Quincy Jones
Cinematography Joseph MacDonald
Edited by Bill Lenny
Highroad Productions, Inc.
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date
  • May 10, 1969 (1969-05-10)
Running time
128 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $7,000,000
Box office $3.1 million (US/ Canada rentals)[1]

Mackenna's Gold is a 1969 American western film directed by J. Lee Thompson, starring an ensemble cast featuring Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, Telly Savalas, Ted Cassidy, Camilla Sparv and Julie Newmar in lead roles. It was photographed in Super Panavision 70 and Technicolor by Joseph MacDonald, with original music by Quincy Jones.

Mackenna's Gold is based on the novel of the same name by Heck Allen using the penname Will Henry, telling the story of how the lure of gold corrupts a diverse group of people. The novel was loosely based on the legend of the Lost Adams Diggings, crediting the Frank Dobie account of the legend (Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver) in the author's note.


An old legend tells of a fortune in gold hidden in the "Cañon del Oro," guarded by the Apache spirits. Along with several others, a man named Adams found it when he was a young man, only to have the Indians capture and blind him, leaving him stranded in the desert after killing his companions. Years later, Marshal MacKenna (Gregory Peck) wounds an old Indian shaman named Prairie Dog (Eduardo Ciannelli) who tried to bushwhack him; Prairie Dog subsequently dies, despite MacKenna's attending to him. MacKenna thereby comes into possession of a map that supposedly shows the way to the treasure. Though skeptical, he memorizes the directions before burning the map.

Meanwhile, Mexican outlaw John Colorado (Omar Sharif) and his gang had been tracking Prairie Dog to get the map, all the while being chased by the U.S. Cavalry. He takes shelter in the house of the old judge of the town of Hadleyburg, stealing horses, mules and food for his journey. He kills the judge and kidnaps his daughter, Inga Bergmann (Camilla Sparv), whom Colorado mistakes for the judge's wife, as a hostage in case the cavalry catches up with him.

Colorado finds MacKenna digging a grave for Prairie Dog and when he learns that MacKenna has destroyed the map, he takes him captive and forces him to lead them to the gold. Colorado also loads Prairie Dog's body onto a horse to bring along with them to Colorado's old hideout, which he has begun to use for shelter again. The gang is made up of outlaws, including Colorado's right-hand man, Sanchez (Keenan Wynn) and several Indians, amongst them a hulking Apache warrior named Hachita (Ted Cassidy). Colorado and his companions have a previous history with MacKenna after being driven out of the state by the Marshal years before, while a fiery Apache woman, Hesh-ke (Julie Newmar) had been MacKenna's one-time love.

The next morning, Ben Baker (Eli Wallach), a gambler and old friend of Colorado's from the town of Hadleyburg, arrives with a posse of townsmen who have become "infected" by "gold fever." Those amongst "Ben's friends" are two Englishmen, (Anthony Quayle and J. Robert Porter), who came along after overhearing Baker's conversation with the others about the gold; an editor, (Lee J. Cobb); a storekeeper, (Burgess Meredith); a preacher, (Raymond Massey), who has convinced himself that God has called upon him to build a tabernacle in His honor with his share of the gold; and the blind Old Adams (Edward G. Robinson) himself. Colorado persuades Old Adams to relate the story of how he discovered the canyon, only to be left alone in the desert by the Apache. This only further raises tensions and hopes in the party. MacKenna tries to allow the townsmen the opportunity to leave under the cavalry's escort, led by the cunning Sergeant Tibbs (Telly Savalas). MacKenna insists that the townsmen will get themselves killed searching for the gold, but Colorado steps in and convinces them to stay after "confessing" that their town's leader, the Judge, was murdered by accident, and revealing that MacKenna shot Prairie Dog.

The party bypasses the encamped cavalry by having two of Baker's men drop off a drunken squaw and make it appear that they are being pursued by Apaches. As MacKenna's group plans to make a final rest stop at a water hole, the cavalry ambushes them. All, except for MacKenna, Colorado, Inga, Hesh-Ke, and Hachita—and perhaps a few others whose fates are left ambiguous—are killed by nesting cavalry soldiers that received information about their whereabouts from the squaw; or, later on, by marauding Apaches trying to prevent the exposure of the gold from outsiders (or, more likely, keep the gold for themselves in order to buy arms and ammunition from gunrunners). During this attack, the body of Prairie Dog is lost as well, although it turns up later being led for proper burial by another Apache (scouting for the rival war party), whom Colorado quickly shoots away. As the remaining gold hunters near the canyon, MacKenna and Inga begin to fall in love, and a jealous Hesh-Ke tries to drown Inga at the water hole, only to be stopped by MacKenna.

Meanwhile, Sergeant Tibbs periodically sends messengers back to his commanding officer, supposedly to keep him informed. Eventually, the patrol is whittled down to just Tibbs and two men. Inga is sent to Tibbs to divert their attention. Rather than escort Inga to safety, Tibbs kills his troopers. He returns her to MacKenna and the outlaws, wanting a share of the gold. After another shoot-out with the Apaches and crossing dangerous river rapids, they reach "Shaking Rock," a location on the map, to wait for the sun to rise on the specified day. The shadow of the pinnacle eventually points to the hidden entrance to the canyon. MacKenna, who had been skeptical, now begins to believe in the legend.

The gold hunters find a canyon with a large vein of pure gold. As all race to the canyon floor, Hesh-ke tries to kill Inga but loses the horse-back struggle and falls to her death. While the rest are celebrating their great fortune, MacKenna escapes with Inga to an Indian dwelling high up the canyon wall, realizing that Colorado does not intend to leave any of the party alive. Tibbs, his attention diverted while stuffing his saddle bags with gold nuggets, is killed by Hachita by means of a thrown hatchet. Colorado tries to shoot Hachita but his guns had been emptied by Hachita the previous night. Hachita claims that the Apache spirits came to him in a dream and enlisted him to kill everyone, so that they could not poach their gold. As Hachita prepares to kill Colorado with the hatchet, Colorado manages to get him first with a knife he had in his vest pocket. He proceeds to pursue MacKenna and Inga up the cliff to the dwellings, where a three-way fight follows. Apaches tipped off by Hachita now attack, and the ensuing shooting and shouting leads to a rockfall. The Apaches flee, and the three survivors descend from the cliff dwellings and scramble for horses, barely escaping the collapse of the canyon walls, which buries the gold. This is followed by the crash of "Shaking Rock."

Stunned from what has just happened, Colorado leaves in disgust, believing the gold has been buried beyond reach, while MacKenna threatens to chase after him after recovering from the commotion. Before MacKenna and Inga ride off together, the camera tilts down to the left saddle bag on McKenna’s mount. The saddle bag bears the initials “U.S.”, identifying McKenna’s mount as Sgt. Tibbs’ horse – the saddle bags of which are stuffed with gold nuggets.


Production notes[edit]


Although Allen's novel title and hero shared the same spelling of the name "Mackenna," and the film's title according to the studio is "Mackenna's Gold," Peck's character is listed in publicity materials as "MacKenna."


Screenwriter Carl Foreman and composer Dimitri Tiomkin joined up to coproduce Mackenna's Gold. The screenplay by Foreman was based on the novel of the same name by Heck Alen. The novel released on 1963 was based on the legend of Lost Adams Diggings. According to the legend, teamster named Adams and some prospectors in Arizona were approached by a Mexican Indian named Gotch Ear, who offered to show them a canyon filled with gold. However in the novel as well as the film, the gang abducts a Marshall named MacKenna to find a way to the Canyon. The film also adapts elements from other novels based on the same legend, like Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver (1939) by Frank Dobie.

Thompson's first choice for the role of MacKenna was Clint Eastwood, but he was offered the lead role in Hang 'Em High (1968) and subsequently Gregory Peck replaced him. Steve McQueen was also considered for the lead role.[2] Omar Sharif was in the originally decided cast following the critical and commercial success of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Julie Newmar played Hesh-Ke, a former love interest of MacKenna. The film also features a stable of Hollywood veterans like Eli Wallach, Raymond Massey, Edward G. Robinson, Burgess Meredith, Lee J. Cobb, Keenan Wynn, and others appearing in supporting roles.

Original production concept[edit]

Originally planned to be shown in single lens Cinerama with reserved seat roadshow engagements, Columbia pulled the plug on that idea, and Mackenna's Gold was drastically cut down immediately prior to its release, from nearly three hours (plus an intermission) to just over two hours.[2]

Film stock[edit]

Although most of Mackenna's Gold was photographed on 65mm stock, a handful of scenes were filmed in 35mm anamorphic.

Locations and props[edit]

Zuni Mountains were the locations[3] of digging according to the legend, but the film was shot mainly at Glen Canyon of Utah and Canyon de Chelly[4] of Arizona, specifically Spider Rock. In the climax scenes, as the sun rises, the shadow of "Shaking Rock"[5] grows longer. In reality, shadows become shorter as the sun rises higher.

The "Old Turkey Buzzard" theme song sequence was shot at Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border. The bird is actually a black vulture rather than a turkey vulture (buzzard).

George Lucas, as a young graduate student at the University of Southern California, was present on location. The themes of the western "horse opera" was later considered an influence in his works.[6]


The original score and songs of the film were composed by Quincy Jones. The opening song, "Old Turkey Buzzard", is a recurring background theme. It was sung by José Feliciano and was composed by Quincy Jones with lyrics by Freddie Douglas. José Feliciano also plays guitar and add vocals in many parts of the soundtrack and Spanish version of the theme song "Viejo Butre" for the Spanish-language edition of the movie.

The theme song was used on the Late Show with David Letterman in 2007 as a random running gag. A 13-second clip would be played after Letterman threw his blue index cards through the "glass" window behind his desk, and was often combined with a video clip of the turkey buzzard soaring in the sky during the movie's opening sequence. Letterman would gradually show increased mock irritation with the clip in discussions with bandleader Paul Shaffer, while at the same time calling it "exciting, moving, inspirational" and "stirring, haunting, beautiful". The running gag ultimately resulted in Feliciano making a guest appearance on the Late Show on October 16, 2007, singing a longer version of the song (with the buzzard video clip superimposed over him).

Track listing
No. Title Length
1. "Overture"   4:36
2. "Old Turkey Buzzard"   2:46
3. "Canon Del Oro"   5:13
4. "Waterhole Trek"   2:37
5. "Reve Parisien"   2:40
6. "Old Turkey Buzzard (Instrumental version)"   2:30
7. "Soul Full Of Gold"   2:40
8. "Main Title"   3:00
9. "Apache Camp"   4:36
10. "Massacre Montage"   2:42
11. "Old Turkey Buzzard (Spanish version)"   1:30
12. "Finale"   2:47
Total length: 37:37


Mackenna's Gold was reviewed in The New York Times by Vincent Canby, who considered the film as an example of "stunning absurdity". He noted: "The structure of the movie is so loose that a narrator (Victor Jory) must be employed from time to time to explain the plot, as if it were a serial. Most surprising in a movie that obviously cost a good deal of money is the sloppy matching of exterior and studio photography with miniature work for special effects."[7]

Although not well received by critics and audiences, Mackenna's Gold was released internationally to some success.[2] The film was popular in the Soviet Union. Mackenna's Gold was first shown at the VIII Moscow International Film Festival in 1973, followed by a cinematic premiere in 1974. The film was viewed by 63 million people and now stands fourth in the all-time rating of a foreign film distribution in the Soviet Union. The title song "Old Turkey Buzzard" was dubbed with Russian lyrics by Leonid Derbenyov, a Russian poet and lyricist widely regarded as one of the stalwarts of 20th-century Soviet and Russian pop music. It was performed by then-popular Soviet singer Valery Obodzinsky.[8]


Quincy Jones's score was nominated for, but did not win, a Grammy Award for best score from a motion picture.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Big Rental Films of 1969." Variety, January 7, 1970, p. 15.
  2. ^ a b c Harland Smith, Richard. "Articles: 'Mackenna's Gold'." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: August 22, 2016.
  3. ^ "Movie locations for Mackenna's Gold." Retrieved: August 22, 2016.
  4. ^ "Movie location: Canyan De Chelly." Retrieved: August 22, 2016.
  5. ^ "Movie scene: Shaking Rock Shadow." Retrieved: August 22, 2016.
  6. ^ Baxter 1999, pp. 76–78.
  7. ^ Canby, Vincent. "Movie review; The screen: 'Mackenna's Gold' in Apache Country." The New York Times, June 19, 1969.
  8. ^ Calic et al. 2011, p.102.


  • Baxter, John. Mythmaker: The Life and Work of George Lucas. New York: William Morrow, 1999. ISBN 0-380-97833-4.
  • Calic, Marie-Janine, Dietmar Neutatz and Julia Obertreis. The Crisis of Socialist Modernity: The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the 1970s. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011. ISBN 978-3-5253-1042-7.
  • Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (DVD). Paramount Pictures Home Video. 2008.
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (DVD). So Paramount Pictures Home Video. 2008.
  • Kline, Sally. George Lucas: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series). Jackson, Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press, 1999. ISBN 1-57806-125-3.
  • Mackenna’s Gold (DVD). Sony Pictures Home Video. 2000.
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark (VHS). Paramount Pictures Home Video. 1999.
  • Salewicz, Chris. George Lucas: Close Up - The Making of His Movies. New York: Da Capo Press 1999. ISBN 1-56025-202-2.

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