In Howard Hawks’s The Big Sky, Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin are fur traders in the 1830s, journeying up the Missouri river into Blackfoot country on a keelboat.
The film is based on an excellent novel by A.B. Guthrie Jr who also wrote the script for Shane (1953), and whose novels These Thousand Hills and The Way West were also made into Western movies.
On the way, Douglas and Martin meet hazards both natural and human and forge their crew into a professional elite.
This camaraderie is threatened when they capture an Indian girl, Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt) as a hostage to guarantee their safety. Both men fall for her but, eventually, it’s resolved.
Shot in black and white, with some impressive scenery, Hawks’s film is ultimately less interested in the epic possibilities of the story than in the rich gallery of characters, including Hank Worden as a crazed old Indian, Arthur Hunnicutt as a feisty old-timer, and Steven Geray as Frenchy, the captain of the boat.
There are also characteristic touches of Hawksian black humour, notably when Douglas has to have his finger amputated – a scene that was originally intended to be performed by John Wayne in Red River (1948).