Imagine charming outlaw Dean Martin kidnapping gorgeous Honor Blackman in a battle of the sexes that includes low comedy, fights (gun, fist and knife), an odd Burt Bacharach song and about 100 Mexican bandits being riddled by a Gatling gun, then you’re ready for Andrew McLaglen’s Something Big.
McLaglen and his frequent screenwriter James Lee Barrett (Shenandoah) teamed to make this scruffy tale for National General in 1971. Now it’s available for the first time on DVD from CBS, and that’s a good thing for Westerns fans.
The “something big” of the title is an idea of Martin’s character, Joe Baker, to become a legend of the West by pulling off one big score. But time’s running out for Baker, since an impending marriage threatens to take him back to his native Philadelphia. He decides to rob a storehouse of gold hidden in a monastery and needs a Gatling gun to do it. The problem is, the man with the Gatling (a funny Albert Salmi) doesn’t want cash for the gun, he wants a woman.
Enter Bond icon Blackman, who just so happens to be married to Brian Keith, who plays the commandant of the local Army barracks and Baker’s archenemy. Baker grabs Mary Anna Morgan (Blackman) to trade for the Gatling, and the battle of the sexes turns into an all-out war, with Mary Anna defying Baker, Col. Morgan (Keith) hot on his trail and an army of bandits ready for the kill.
Aiming for a lighter, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-like tone, Something Big mixes ironic humor, slapstick and old-style Western action. McLaglen was no stranger to this approach, having hit those notes so successfully with 1963’s McLintock!
McLaglen liked throwing humor into the Western mix, “I always enjoyed that [comic approach]. Something Big to me was a very funny movie, and that’s another one [of my films] I think is underrated. National General was going broke, and it happened to be their last in-house picture before they went under.”
This was McLaglen’s second film with Martin, following their successful Bandolero! “After doing two pictures with him, I can tell you there’s no better worker anywhere than Dean Martin,” McLaglen says. “He was so conscientious; knew his lines and was always standing next to the camera ready to go. All of this hokey poke that you saw on TV about his drinking, forget it. He was absolutely professional. We did running inserts [shots of Martin on a wagon], and I asked Dean if he’d do it again, and he said, ‘Andy, I’ll do it a hundred times if you need me to.’”
Something Big’s laid-back comedy belongs to Martin, and the scruffy mutt who rides along with him, while Keith gives a broad, funny performance as the Army officer on verge of retirement. Keith’s frustration with Merlin Olsen’s character plays as a mini-tribute to John Wayne’s Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and to McLaglen’s dad, Victor.
Well shot by Harry Stradling, and filled with familiar faces (Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr.), Something Big is an amiable, gentle example of an old-fashioned studio Western, made at a time when the genre was beginning to fade from view.
C. Courtney Joyner is a screenwriter and director with more than 25 produced movies to his credit. He is the author of The Westerners: Interviews with Actors, Directors and Writers.