US Release Date: 06-10-1966
Directed by: Henry Hathaway
- Steve McQueen, as
- Max Sand/Nevada Smith
- Karl Malden, as
- Tom Fitch
- Brian Keith, as
- Jonas Cord
- Arthur Kennedy, as
- Bill Bowdre
- Suzanne Pleshette, as
- Raf Vallone, as
- Father Zaccardi
- Janet Margolin, as
- Pat Hingle, as
- Big Foot
- Howard Da Silva, as
- Martin Landau, as
- Jesse Coe
- Paul Fix, as
- Sheriff Bonnell
- Gene Evans, as
- Sam Sand
- Josephine Hutchinson, as
- Mrs. Elvira McCanles
- John Doucette, as
- Uncle Ben McCanles
- Val Avery, as
- Buck Mason
- Loni Anderson, as
- Brunette Saloon Girl
- Iron Eyes Cody, as
- Strother Martin as
Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith.
Although prequels are generally thought of as a modern idea, it's really only the name that's a recent invention. Nevada Smith, released in 1966, tells the back story of one of the characters from 1964's The Carpetbaggers, with both films being based upon events in the Harold Robbins' novel. In that earlier film the part of Nevada Smith was played by Alan Ladd, but here Steve McQueen steps into the role to show Smith's history. Despite the connection, no prior knowledge is needed to enjoy this movie.
McQueen was a talented and charismatic actor and he does a good job in the lead role despite being somewhat miscast. Max Sand--Nevada Smith's real name--is a half-breed who is supposed to be just 16 years old when the film starts. Although I suppose it's possible that Max takes strictly after his father; blonde haired, 35 year old McQueen looks nothing like a teenager with a Native American parent. Brian Keith, who plays his mentor, was just 9 years his senior in real life, while Martin Landau, who plays one of the bad guys, was just 2 years older than McQueen and Gene Evans, who plays Max's father, was just 8 years older. The age difference between actor and part is compounded by the way the script has so many characters at the beginning of the film comment upon Max's age as if he were only a boy. Once McQueen was cast, it would have been better were these references simply removed and the audience could infer whatever age they wanted for the character.
The plot is a simple one and like so many Westerns, is a tale of revenge. Max's parents are killed by a trio of bandits who think that Max's father knows the whereabouts of a gold mine. Their deaths prompt Max to swear vengeance. He sets out in pursuit, but is such a greenhorn that he is almost immediately robbed and left to wander the wilds until he stumbles upon Jonas Cord (Brian Keith), a gun dealer who takes pity on him and trains him how to shoot. With his new found knowledge and confidence, Max travels the country to get his revenge, going from the West to New Orleans where he gets himself thrown into a southern prison in the middle of a swamp to get to one of the killers, before heading back out west to get his final revenge on the ringleader of the trio, played by Karl Malden. Along the way Max eventually starts calling himself Nevada Smith to hide his identity from the killers and from the authorities since Max is now a wanted man in his own right.
At over two hours, the film does run long. The section in prison, which tries to create some romance between Max and a Cajun woman (Suzanne Pleshette) he meets while being loaned out as part of a work crew on a farm, could definitely do with some trimming. There's also an interlude in an Indian camp and another at the 11th hour in a monastery which tries to add a moral dimension to the tale, but could easily have been removed.
Almost the entire film was shot on location and not just the typical desert setting with the same rock formation in the background over and over again. A good portion of it was filmed in the Inyo National Forest and it makes a beautiful backdrop. Other scenes take place in the Alabama Hills of the Sierra Nevada mountains and again the cinematography makes full use of the locations.
Apart from the disparity in the ages and ethnic background, McQueen is excellent in the lead role. He carries the movie, appearing in nearly every scene. McQueen had that quiet cool built into his DNA. He wasn't physically imposing, but you believe he's dangerous and he handles the action well. It's his star power that overcomes the film's flaws and he's the reason to watch. Without him, this would be just another revenge style Western, but he makes it into something more memorable.
Brian Keith and Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith.
Nevada Smith has its flaws but it's still a pretty damn good western. Henry Hathaway sure knew how to make them. He directed his first western way back in 1932. It was called Heritage of the Desert and featured a young Randolph Scott in his very first starring role. Hathaway was in the midst of a late career resurgence when he directed Nevada Smith. He had just done The Sons of Katie Elder and had 5 Card Stud and True Grit yet to come.
Nevada Smith, like all of those other westerns, is old fashioned in style. Its one concession to the changing times being the fact that when someone gets shot we see actual blood (albeit very fake looking blood). Its most dated offense is the miscasting of Caucasian actors in non-Caucasian roles. Scott mentioned the fact that blond Steve McQueen is playing a half-breed (and I also agree that he's way too old for the part), which is pretty ridiculous (although so was Alan Ladd in the role). But how about Janet Margolin as a Native American or Suzanne Pleshette playing Cajun?
Not to suggest that the cast ruins the movie because they don't. It's an excitingly filmed and well acted western revenge fantasy/coming of age story. To his credit McQueen is great as Max Sand/Nevada Smith. Before too long he makes you forget about his advanced age and inappropriate hair color and you just see the character, as he goes diligently about his work of seeking justice for his slain family members.
One scene that stands out is when Nevada Smith is fighting the bad guy played by Martin Landau in a cattle pen. McQueen opens one of the gates to let the cattle out and they stampede out quicker than expected, knocking over a fence and very nearly trampling the star of the movie. When they realized how dangerous this looked on film they decided to use it in the movie and so they added the reaction shot of Nevada rolling to safety.
Nevada Smith demonstrates the power of a great movie star. Even as badly miscast as Steve McQueen was he manages to make the role his. Hell, he almost made me believe he was a teenaged half-breed – and he's a very cool one at that. The supporting cast is pretty great too, especially Brian Keith as Max's mentor, and it features plenty of breathtaking cinematography.
Steve McQueen in Nevada Smith
I agree completely with Patrick that Steve McQueen was talented and as cool as they come but McQueen never came close to making me believe he was a half Indian teenager. I asked my wife, who has no idea who McQueen is, to look up from her phone and tell me how old she thought the actor on screen was. She guessed 35. I asked her if she would believe me if I told her he was 40, and she answered, "Oh, sure." Somewhat miscast, Scott? McQueen had a face at that point in his life that could convincingly play older but not younger. Just look at that large forehead that resembled a receding hairline.
Scott wrote that the script should have eliminated the references to how old he is, but that is the entire point of this coming of age story. Max Sand's story arc is his growing up to become a man. If his age is erased then we lose the most important aspect of this tale. Each person Max meets, each event he experiences is a lesson, be it about guns, poker, reading, writing, sex, love, religion, honor and death. Seeing a middle aged man experience these things for the first time made Max seem mentally challenged.
One of the best examples of his learning as he goes is in comparing his first encounter with one of the three killers and the last. When he comes across his first target, who is playing poker, Max calls out his name, "Jesse," who pretends unconvincingly to be someone else. When Max meets his last target the roles are reversed. Several times someone calls out, "Max Sands" and Max convincingly acts as if he is someone else. To use the poker term, he learned to bluff.
I found McQueen's age to be a far bigger flaw than either of my brothers mention. Max should have been played by someone much younger, and preferably with darker hair. Not only would have casting a younger actor been more realistic, it would have also raised the tension level. Watching a middle aged man go through these trials and life experiences seems like less of an accomplishment than if they were completed by a minor.
Nevada Smith has some things to offer, such as a decent pace, even though it does run too long. That amazing California scenery will keep your eyes entertained or, at least, distracted. There is also plenty of good old fashioned horses and guns western action. You are never exactly sure who will die. This all makes for a good watch but it could have been a great one had an age appropriate actor played the lead.
Photos © Copyright Paramount Pictures (1966)