Howard Hawks' "The Big Sky" could be seen as the spiritual successor to "Red River", which he made four years earlier. Both are stories of the American west, of adventure and brotherhood, and the excitement of living a life of freedom in the wild. But where Red River was more a battle of wills, Big Sky is a testament to brotherly love. In it, two frontiersmen, Jim and Boone (Kirk Douglas, Dewey Martin) are fast friends seeking adventure. They find it in the form of uncle Zeb Calloway (Arthur Hunnicutt, in an oscar-nominated performance) who knows of some french traders about to travel up the Missouri river in a flat bottom boat to do some fur trading. The "big" fur-trading company in those parts has so far met with little success with the hostile indians, but this french company has a secret ace-in-the-hole in the form of "Teal Eye" (Elizabeth Threatt), a blackfoot princess whose father will surely reward them handsomely for returning her home safely. That is, if they survive their journey.
Jim and Boone live out under the open sky. They feel uncomfortable in the big city and comment on how "city men walk" and how the women are cinched up in their dresses like sacks that've been tied up too tight. There is a particular irony to Boone, who hates injuns (they killed his brother, and he carries the scalp of the one who did it, according to his uncle), yet there burns within him the desire to live as they do, simply and off the land. The indians in Big Sky are treated not as "the bad guys" as they so often were in films from this period, but as individuals and individual tribes, some good, some bad. Probably the most fair treatment native Americans had received in the movies at the time. But more than anything, it's the journey upriver that features so heavily in this film. It's a journey fraught with indians, rushing waters, rattlesnakes, fires, bullets and arrows... and it's quite a satisfying journey at that.