Against A Crooked Sky

Director: Earl Bellamy                  
Richard Boone, Stewart Petersen, Henry Wilcoxon

The first Stewart Petersen movie I reviewed for this page (Seven Alone) was pretty bad. The next one I reviewed (The Rivals) was so-so. So before watching Against A Crooked Sky, it seemed logical that it would be pretty good. And it was. It's definitely no masterpiece - the last third of the movie has some serious problems, and the story is derivative, seemingly a cross between the major studio westerns The Searchers and Mackenna's Gold. But I thought it had its share of original moments that were quite good, and even during the more predictable moments I was never bored, for they were usually presented in a palatable manner.

This movie is a self-proclaimed "family film", largely advertised by the fact that it was given a G rating when it was released. With that in mind, it's interesting to compare what was considered family friendly in the '70s, compared to now. Take the opening sequence, set somewhere in the American desert during the age of the cowboy. In a peaceful valley, we see Charlotte, a young woman in her late teens bathing in a river. Then Sam (Petersen), her pervert of a younger brother, sneaks up on her, carefully watching her as he steals her clothes. She is surprised by him all of a sudden, and as she stands up out of the water, we see a flash of her breasts before she covers them up with her arms! And after she yells at him and threatens to tell their parents, she walks out of of the river naked. Though she is almost completely covered up by some branches in front of the camera, we do see a partial butt shot! Later in the movie, we see a few Native Americans portrayed as - gasp! - bad guys! There's one scene where there's a violent struggle between the heroes and them, and the heroes kill them! And most shocking of all, Native Americans are referred to as Indians! Boy, things have changed, haven't they? (Say, parents, why do you make a fuss about stuff in modern family films while no one raised a fuss about material like this concerning G movies in the 70s?)

Back to the story. Seems Sam wasn't the only one who got an eyeful of his sister, but some passing natives from a faraway and hidden tribe. (Why these members of the tribe are so far away from their home is never explained.) Later, when Charlotte and Sam's parents have gone out, the natives make a raid and kidnap Charlotte. Subsequent searches by their neighbors fail to find any trace of the natives, and Sam feels so guilty that he wasn't able to properly defend his sister, that he sneaks out of the house, determined to find her. He enlists the aid of a drunken prospector named Russian (Boone) that he met earlier to accompany him and be a translator, managing to convince him to come along by showing evidence that where the natives dwell, there is gold nearby. During their travels, they hear of a cryptic clue - something called "Crooked Sky" - and it is the challenge Sam finds himself facing later.

Boone is the best thing about the movie, and alone makes it worth watching. He is an absolute joy to watch. With an old-timer beard, he kind of reminds the viewer of cowboy sidekicks like Gabby Hayes. But Boone takes his character much further. He is always growling, insulting, and criticizing Sam for his ineptness, but the way he does all of this is never mean spirited - there is always a twinkle in his booming voice. He is also very funny, spouting off a lot of amusingly corny statements like, "I feel like the inside of a sow's belly!" after a night of too much drink. Speaking of drink, his drunken singing also provides a number of laughs. Boone looks so comfortable, so relaxed in the role, I could swear at times he was ad-libbing his dialogue. Whether that is true or not, he is funny all the same when he needs to be. Also, he is downright serious when the situation provokes him to be; in one scene his character becomes extremely upset, and struggles to hold back the tears, and it's a great performance.

In the previous Stewart Petersen movies I reviewed, I criticized his performance, pointing out how mushy his voice was, and acting like he was reading out of a script. I expected another bad performance here, but he's actually okay here. Not great, but he gives a tolerable performance where we can understand what he's saying. The Native American actors generally have no dialogue, speaking in their native tongue during the few times they speak, but the casting department made up for this by casting actors who have real presence despite their silence. There's an old native that is mute yet captivates the screen with his sign language, and there is a bald native later whose strange appearance keeps you looking. I kept looking at all of them with intrigue, wondering what their characters were thinking. Another unit on the movie that deserves kudos are the people who chose the locations. Some of the locations are absolutely breathtaking, and even the simpler locations (such as on and around the ranch) have a pleasing look to them, all colorfully photographed.

The story is more leisurely paced, taking its time to get going even after Charlotte gets kidnapped. Even after Sam starts on his journey, the movie doesn't switch to a faster pace. The movie generally is never too slow or too fast - it knows where it's going, and it's careful not to miss a step. Along the journey, there are many incidents that while maybe not action packed, are interesting all the same.  The script boasts some positive themes, like love for your family, and never giving up. And like many other '70s independent family films, it has a subtle agenda to it, such as with this scene near the beginning:

Charlotte: If a person's everything he should be, he wouldn't be thinking of himself first, even if if meant dying.
Sam: Where did you get that?
Charlotte: The Bible!

She then picks up a Bible, and reads from the scriptures that there is "no greater love than to die for a person". There are several other instances where there are references to the Bible, or with people praying to God. Except for that somewhat heavy-handed beginning example, the Christian influences on the script are actually palatable here, because they are given in a more casual, off-hand nature that doesn't try to preach to the audience. Also, the messages in these Christian bits are generally those I think even non-believers will agree with are good for children to be told.

The last part of the movie - starting with Sam's attempt to get through "Crooked Sky" - are when things start to fall apart. In the last half hour, Boone almost disappears entirely from the movie, and his presence is missed. During the "Crooked Sky" challenge, Sam's subsequent "struggle" (it isn't as challenging as I would have liked it to be) includes some very nice helicopter shots of him in action, though even before he started in action, I already knew what was going to happen at the end. That's because just before he starts, the movie telegraphs the conclusion in such an obvious way. So instead of us getting a surprise ending, we already know the ending, and we have to wait for it. And there is another problem - after the challenge ends (and the bad guys disappear with no further explanation), we have to wait a long time for this "surprise" to come. And when this "surprise" does come, it also comes with a number of questions that are not explained, so viewers will probably be a little frustrated as the credits roll by.

There's still enough in Against A Crooked Sky to make it worth a look, and I personally think it's a decent family movie to show to the kids. True, there is that nudity at the beginning, but I think it's time that society develops a more healthy attitude towards nudity, so I wouldn't mind it if my kids saw that. Still, I can't help but think: A G-rated Christian movie with breasts? Who'da ever thought that?

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See also: Bad Company, The Rivals, Seven Alone