Big Sky, The (1952): Howard Hawks Oscar-Nominated Western, Starring Kirk Douglas and Arthur Hunnicutt in Oscar Nominated Turn

Produced and directed by Howard Hawks, the Western The Big Sky was written by Dudley Nichols, based on the novel of the same name by A.B. Guthrie Jr.

Grade: B (*** 1/2* out of *****)

The Big Sky
Poster of The Big Sky (film).jpg

Film poster

Though not one of Hawks strongest films, The Big Sky still holds many merits.

It’s the first and only collaboration between Hawks and Kirk Douglas, who’s well cast.

The cast includes Dewey Martin, Elizabeth Threatt and Arthur Hunnicutt, who was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Set in 1832, the tale centers on Jim Deakins (Douglas), who’s travelling in the wilderness where he encounters the initially hostile Boone Caudill (Dewey Martin). However, they soon become friends and head together to St. Louis on the Missouri River, searching for Boone’s uncle, Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt).

They find him when they are tossed in jail for brawling with fur traders of the Missouri River Company.  ‘Frenchy’ Jourdonnais (Steven Geray) comes to bail Zeb out, and Zeb talks him into paying for Jim and Boone.

The two men join an expedition organized by Zeb and Frenchy, who owns a sailing barge called ‘Mandan’. Recruiting other trappers, they begin to travel 2,000 miles up the Missouri and into the Yellowstone River to seek trade with the Blackfoot Indians, in competition with the Missouri Fur Company.

Zeb has brought along Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt), a pretty Blackfoot woman Zeb had found after she had escaped from enemy tribe. She is the daughter of a chief and Zeb plans to return her to her family as means of establishing trade with the tribe.

On the journey, they encounter another Blackfoot that Zeb knows, Poordevil (Hank Worden); they take him along too. Later, Teal Eye falls into the river and is rescued from rapids by Boone.

The Missouri Company knows about the threat to monopoly. A party led by Streak (Jim Davis) captures Teal Eye and tries to burn the boat, but Frenchy wakes up before the fire causes much damage. Poordevil tracks the enemy and Zeb and Jim rescue the woman.

Later the expedition puts in at a company trading post and leaves a warning not to interfere. A week later they repulse an attack by Crow Indians. Jim is separated from the group and shot in the leg. Boone, followed by Teal Eye and Poordevil, extracts the bullet and waits for his friend to heal.

When they rejoin their band, they find Streak trying to buy the boat and its goods. Jim compares the bullet dug out of his leg with one of Streak’s and finds them to be the same. Streak and his men are killed in the ensuing shootout.

The expedition finally reaches the Blackfoot village. Teal Eye then tells a disappointed Jim that she loves him like a brother. Boone follows her back to her teepee. However, Teal Eye makes him buy her from her father, so that he will be free to leave her.

The men begin the long return boat trip and Boone abandons Teal Eye. This cools the earlier friendship between Boone and Jim, who confides to Zeb that unlike Boone he would not have left if Teal Eye.

Later that evening, Boone changes his mind and decides to return to Teal Eye, which pleases Jim, and the two men remain friends as they finally go their separate ways.

For commercial reasons, the film’s running time was reduced from 140 minutes to 122 minutes for its general release.

The 8-minute suite for The Big Sky was released on Lost Horizon: The Classic Film Scores of Dimitri Tiomkin (1976), performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Charles Gerhardt. Recorded in London in 1975, the RCA Red Seal album was rereleased on audio CD in 1991 and 2010.

Oscar nominations: 2

Supporting Actor: Arthur Hunnicutt
Cinematography (black-and-white): Russell Harlan

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1952, Anthony Quinn won the Supporting Actor Oscar for Kazan’s biopic “Viva Zapata.”

Robert Surtees won the Best Cinematography Oscar for Minnelli’s Hollywood melodrama “The Bad and the Beautiful.”

Kirk Douglas as Jim Deakins
Dewey Martin as Boone Caudill
Elizabeth Threatt as Teal Eye
Arthur Hunnicutt as Zeb Calloway
Buddy Baer as Romaine, one of Frenchy’s men
Steven Geray as ‘Frenchy’ Jourdonnais
Henri Letondal as Labadie
Hank Worden as Poordevil
Jim Davis as Streak


Produced, directed by Howard Hawks

Screenplay byDudley Nichol, based on The Big Sky, 1949 novel
by A.B. Guthrie Jr.

Cinematography: Russell Harlan (b/w)

Edited by Christian Nyby

Music by Dimitri Tiomkin

Production and distribution company: RKO Radio Pictures

Release dates: July 29, 1952 (Premiere-Chicago); August 19, 1952 (US)

Running time: 122 minutes

Box office: $1.65 million (US rentals)