Below is Part Two to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon the 1967 movie, “”:
“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Two – “THE WAY WEST” (1967)
Based upon A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s 1949 novel, “THE WAY WEST” told the story of a large wagon train’s journey to Oregon in 1843. The wagon train is led by a widowed former U.S. Senator named William Tadlock (Kirk Douglas). A former mountain man named Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum) is hired as the wagon party’s guide and among the last to join the train is farmer Lije Evans (Richard Widmark), his wife Rebecca (Lola Albright)and their 16 year-old son Brownie (Michael McGreevey); who were living near Independence when the wagon train was being formed.
During the journey to Oregon, the movie introduced audiences with the other members of the wagon train. They included a family from Georgia named the McBees (Harry Carey Jr., Connie Sawyer and Sally Field), and the recently married Johnnie and Amanda Mack (Mike Witney and Katherine Justice). Personal friendships and animosities flourished during the 2,000 miles journey. Summers managed to befriend both Lije and Brownie Evans. The latter fell in love with the McBees’ extroverted daughter Mercy, who developed a crush on Johnnie Mack. The latter had difficulty consummating his marriage with a sexually unresponsive wife. Frustrated, Mack turned to Mercy for a brief tryst. Senator Tadlock proved to be an intimidating, yet manipulative leader. Only two people dared to question his decisions – Summers and Lije. Especially the latter. Although willing to question Tadlock’s leadership, Lije was reluctant to replace him as the wagon party’s new leader.
“THE WAY WEST” received a good deal of negative criticisms. It has also been compared to “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” to its detriment. I plan to write a review of “THE WAY WEST” in the future. But right now, I am more interested in how the movie fared in regard to historical accuracy.
II. History vs. Hollywood
The Tadlock wagon party headed for Oregon Territory in 1843, the year known as “The Great Migration of 1843” or the “Wagon Train of 1843”, in which an estimated 700 to 1,000 emigrants left for Oregon. The number of emigrants in Tadlock’s party and the year in which the movie is set, seemed historically accurate.“THE WAY WEST” also featured a few well-known landmarks along the Oregon Trail. Such landmarks included Chimney Rock, Scott’s Bluff, Independence Rock and Fort Hall. Fort Laramie did not play a role in the movie’s plot.
So far, “THE WAY WEST” seemed to be adhering to historical accuracy. Unfortunately, this did not last. One, the wagons featured in the movie came in all shapes and sizes. They ranged from farm wagons to large Conestoga wagons. I cannot even describe the wagon used by the McFee family. It was not as heavy as a Conestoga, but it was long enough to convey Mr. McFee’s peach tree saplings across the continent. The draft animals used by the emigrants turned out to be a mêlée of oxen, mules and horses. The movie did point out the necessity of abandoning unnecessary possessions to lighten the wagons’ loads. Only, it was pointed out when the wagon party attempted to ascend a very steep slope what looked like the in Idaho.
“THE WAY WEST” did not feature a large-scale attack by a horde of Native Americans. But the movie came damn near close to including one. The wagon party first encountered a group of Cheyenne warriors not far from Independence Rock. When one of the emigrants, Johnnie Mack, mistook a chief’s young son hidden underneath a wolf’s skin as a real wolf and shot him, the wagon train made tracks in order to avoid retribution. The Cheyenne caught up with the wagon party and demanded the head of the boy’s killer. The other emigrants declared they were willing to fight it out with the Cheyenne, until they discovered they would be facing a large horde of warriors. In the end, Mr. Mack confessed to the crime and allowed himself to be hanged, in order to spare Brownie Evans from being handed over to the Cheyenne by Tadlock.
Dramatically, I found this sequence to be effective. I admired how director Andrew V. McLaglen developed the tension between the emigrants, Senator Tadlock and the Cheyenne demanding justice. Historically, I found it a mess. The number of Cheyenne warriors that had gathered for the sake of one boy struck me as very improbable. The only times I could recall that many Native Americans gathering at one spot was the council for the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie and the Battle of Little Bighorn. And considering that the Cheyenne nation were spread out from the Black Hills in present-day South Dakota to southern Colorado, I found this encounter between the Tadlock wagon party and the Cheyenne historically improbable.
“THE WAY WEST” fared somewhat better than “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” in regard to historical accuracy. But I found it lacking in some aspects of the plot. Like the 1962 movie, “THE WAY WEST” proved to be more entertaining than historically accurate.
Filed under: Essay, History, Movies | Tagged: andrew v. mclaglen, antebellum, harry carey jr., history, kirk douglas, literary, old west, richard widmark, robert mitchum, sally field, travel, way west, westward ho |