Monday, October 20, 2014

Tonight's Movie: The Macahans (1976) at the Lone Pine Film Festival

The final screening I attended at the 25th Lone Pine Film Festival was THE MACAHANS (1976), the TV-movie which was the pilot for the HOW THE WEST WAS WON miniseries and TV series which followed, continuing production until 1979.

THE MACAHANS was not filmed in Lone Pine but was featured in honor of festival guest Bruce Boxleitner.

THE MACAHANS was one of the very first screen roles for the man who would go on to star in EAST OF EDEN (1981), BRING 'EM BACK ALIVE (1982-83), SCARECROW AND MRS. KING (1983-87), BABYLON 5 (1994-98), and the current Hallmark series CEDAR COVE, as well as Disney's cult film TRON (1982). TRON was revived nearly 30 years later with Boxleitner and Jeff Bridges starring in the 2010 sequel; it will have another sequel released next year.

Boxleitner was a congenial festival guest who was front and center interacting with attendees for the entire weekend. I especially enjoyed him in EAST OF EDEN with Jane Seymour, where his character exited shortly after she uttered the unforgettable line "You just slept with your brother's wife." Having seen him in so many varied projects over several decades, it was a lot of fun to meet him in person during the festival and even hear firsthand how he almost made a Western with Budd Boetticher.

THE MACAHANS starred James Arness as frontier scout Zeb Macahan, with the always-wonderful Richard Kiley and Eva Marie Saint as his brother and sister-in-law, Timothy and Kate Macahan. Boxleitner played their oldest son, Seth (the character name was later changed to Luke), with the other children played by Kathryn Holcomb, William Kirby Cullen, and Vicki Schreck. It was also fantastic to see character favorites Frank Ferguson and Ann Doran as Arness and Kiley's parents.

I was very fond of HOW THE WEST WAS WON "back in the day," and in fact I will admit to still having a mint-condition lunchbox such as seen here tucked away in a cupboard. I received it as a gift and it looked too nice to use so I always had it on display on a shelf instead! I was thus quite enthused to see THE MACAHANS for the first time since it originally aired.

Revisiting it for the first time in the better part of four decades, I have to admit I didn't think it held up all that well. It might have played better on TV, broken up with commercials or spread over a couple of nights, but seen in one sitting, it seems like a pioneer version of THE PERILS OF PAULINE! The Macahans attempt to move west before their family can be caught up in the Civil War, but every bad thing that could possibly have happened to the Macahan family did happen!

I was glad to have the chance to revisit it and especially to reacquaint myself with the work of some favorite veteran actors, but I was becoming impatient for the film to end by the time it finally wrapped up.

THE MACAHANS was written by Jim Byrnes, directed by Bernard McEveety, and filmed by Edward R. Plante.

As was the case with GUNGA DIN (1939), what followed the screening was very enjoyable, as Boxleitner was interviewed by historian Ed Hulse, and I was certainly glad I went.

Boxleitner felt that James Arness really enjoyed THE MACAHANS because he had just come off his long run on GUNSMOKE, and playing untamed mountain man Zeb Macahan let him cut loose and play a character a little wilder than he'd been playing for the previous couple of decades.

He also shared that it wasn't until years later, watching an archival interview with Arness on YouTube, that he learned that the network had been insisting on another young actor but Arness went to bat for Boxleitner to be cast, and prevailed. He said that in doing so, Arness completely changed his life, and he continues to be very grateful.

He said that the veteran actors in the film were all extremely supportive and helpful to the younger cast members, who for the most part had little experience; he said Richard Kiley was especially helpful playing their emotional final scene together, not moving after they rehearsed it but staying in position and in character until they completed the work. He was quite effusive in praising Kiley's professionalism and kindness, which was wonderful to hear about a man I have always admired as both a singer and an actor.

Boxleitner said he never knew why Saint later left the project, replaced in the series by Fionnula Flanagan as Kate's sister, and that he was very sorry she left.

Boxleitner didn't mention it in the interview, but he married Kathryn Holcomb, who played his sister Laura, and they had two sons. They later divorced and she married British actor Ian Ogilvy. He went on to marry Melissa Gilbert -- their son Michael is named for Michael Landon -- but they split after many years together, and she is now married to actor-director Timothy Busfeld (THIRTYSOMETHING). Some Hollywood trivia!

THE MACAHANS is on DVD as an extra in the Season One set of HOW THE WEST WAS WON.

Prior to THE MACAHANS a charming foreign-language short was shown titled FAR FROM THE WEST (2013), about a Brazilian man who has an amazingly huge collection of Westerns. I loved the way he rhapsodized in Portuguese about his happy childhood memories of Allan "Rocky" Lane, especially as I recently reviewed the new biography of Lane by Linda Alexander.

He also said that as a child he didn't know what "directed" meant but that he recognized early on that if he saw the name William Witney at the start of a movie, good things would follow.

Coincidentally I purchased Witney's autobiography at the festival, which has the crazy title IN A DOOR, INTO A FIGHT, OUT A DOOR, INTO A CHASE: MOVIEMAKING REMEMBERED BY THE GUY AT THE DOOR.

The documentary includes footage of a visit to the Lone Pine Film Festival. I know my fellow Western fans would also enjoy seeing FAR FROM THE WEST (2013); there's a bit more information on the festival website, including a brief clip.

For more on the Lone Pine Film Festival, please visit The 25th Lone Pine Film Festival in Review, which includes all links to all of my festival coverage at the end of the post.


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