William A. Wellman’s Across The Wide Missouri had the potential to be an epic Western, but extensive studio cuts resulted in a film unrecognizable from the one intended by its director. Released in 1951, Across The Wide Missouri stars screen legend Clark Gable (Gone With The Wind) as fur trapper Flint Mitchell, who embarks upon a dangerous beaver hunting expedition in Blackfoot territory. Accompanied by a team that includes trapper Pierre (Adolphe Menjou) and Flint’s Scottish pal Brecan (John Hodiak) who’s gone native with Blackfoot tribes, Flint ingratiates himself with Blackfoot chief Bear Ghost (Jack Holt, Cat People). That’s thanks in part to entering a marriage of convenience with Bear Ghost’s granddaughter Kamiah (María Elena Marqués) who he initially treats as a bargaining chip but they soon fall in.
Across The Wide Missouri does suffer from the whitewashing common to Westerns of that era, with the vast majority of its Native American characters played by Caucasian or Hispanic actors, but Wellman did take steps to make a movie more authentic than many of its contemporaries. Thanks to technical advisor Nipo T. Strongheart, actors in the film spoke Chinook jargon (a Native American trade language) and unlike many other Westerns of the era, Across The Wide Missouri showed a lot more cultural understanding by not portraying its Native American characters as savages.
Add to that William C. Mellor’s stunning Technicolor cinematography of the ruggedly beautiful Colorado locations, and Across The Wide Missouri had the potential to be an epic, intelligent Western. That's until MGM took a hatchet to the 135-minute cut Wellman submitted and effectively ruined the film.
The cuts came about as a result of Across The Wide Missouri’s lukewarm reception during test screenings and the film was edited down to just 78 minutes – barely half its original runtime. The heavily edited film was so disjointed MGM decided to bring in actor Howard Keel (Dallas) to provide voiceover narration as Flint’s grown-up son telling his father’s life story to tie it together. Wellman was so sickened by MGM’s cuts he effectively disowned Across The Wide Missouri, later stating in an interview “I’ve not seen it, and I never will.”
In reality, the version of Across The Wide Missouri that was released was only half the movie Wellman wanted audiences to see. Had the film been made more recently, a director’s cut showing a version more in line with his intent would’ve probably been released but that wasn’t the done thing back in the 1950s. Across The Wide Missouri is a beautifully shot and progressive Western but one that could’ve been a whole lot better if it weren’t for MGM’s ham-fisted editing job.