The Hallelujah Trail was director/producer John Sturges' effort at doing a light-hearted Western, almost a satire of the genre. It dates from a period in which the major studios, distributors, and producers had decided that bigger was almost always better, not just in dramas and musicals, but also in comedy, which led to such gargantuan productions as Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines and The Great Race, both released in that same year. But those movies, for all of their outsized casts and lengths, had a key virtue that The Hallelujah Trail lacked: They were funny -- not all the way through, but in many of their scenes and shots, enough to justify an entire afternoon or evening invested in watching them; whereas The Hallelujah Trail just lay there for much of its 166 minutes, eliciting a few chuckles (at best). Sturges had directed and produced some extremely long (and successful) dramatic films the late 1950s and early 1960s, but seems to have had no ability to handle sustained comedy -- every shot in The Hallelujah Trail is held too long, every scene runs too long, and he was unable to be able to get the kind of laugh-inducing performances out of his cast that he needed. Given that the cast was led by Burt Lancaster, this is not surprising -- Lancaster, like Sturges, was known and praised for many things, but comedy was not high on the list; James Garner, whose sense of irony is much more light-hearted and nearer the surface, and who subsequently delivered his share of comedic westerns as a star in Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), would have been a better choice. And with that impediment at the center of the movie, and a director who couldn't achieve the overall tone required, the picture was doomed from the start. Among the cast, only Donald Pleasence, playing a sagely drunk, fares well -- especially in his first scene, which savagely parodies the scene with the village wise-man in Sturges' own The Magnificent Seven. Pleasence makes the most of his material and evidently inspired Sturges at those moments. His performance and Elmer Bernstein's score (one of his best), and maybe the chance to watch Lee Remick (who would have looked good in a burlap bag) modeling 19th century women's fashions, are the best reasons for seeing this movie, unless you have endless patience.
by Bruce Eder review