“THE WAY WEST” (1967) Review

“THE WAY WEST” (1967) Review

Years ago, I had watched a 1952 movie called “THE BIG SKY”. The movie was an adaptation of a novel written by A.B. Guthrie Jr. I eventually learned that Guthrie had used some of the characters featured in “THE BIG SKY” and created a series of novels set between 1830 and the 1880s. One of them was the 1949 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Way West”.

Twenty-eight years after the 1949 novel’s release, Harold Hecht produced an film adaptation of it. Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, “THE WAY WEST” told the story about an Oregon-bound wagon train being led west by a former U.S. senator. Throughout the journey, the wagon train emigrants endure weather, accidents, encounters with Native Americans and the usual personal dramas that beset a group of people forced to live with one another over a long period of time. Many film critics have dismissed “THE WAY WEST” over the years, comparing it unfavorably to the 1962 movie, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. I never understood this comparison. The 1962 film was about the history of one family during most of the 19th century West. Out of the film’s five segments – two had focused on members of the family emigrating to the West. “THE WAY WEST” told the story of the members of one Oregon-bound wagon train in the year 1843.

Before one starts speculating over how a film with a 122 minutes running time could tell the story about all members of a wagon train. It cannot. Guthrie’s novel, along with Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann’s screenplay focused on a group of people:

*William Tadock – former U.S. senator and captain of the “Liberty Wagon Train”
*Lije Evans – restless Missouri farmer who decides to move his family to the Oregon Territory at the last moment
*Rebecca Evans – Lije’s pragmatic wife
*Brownie Evans – Lije and Rebecca’s shy son
*Dick Summers – widowed mountain man and guide for the wagon train
*Mr. McBee – Georgia-born farmer hoping to start a peach farm
*Mrs. McBee – wife of Mr. McBee
*Mercy McBee – flirtatious only child of the McBees and the object of Brownie’s desire
*John “Johnnie” Mack – recently married emigrant and object of Mercy’s desire
*Amanda Mack – Johnnie’s sexually frigid bride

There are aspects of “THE WAY WEST” that I found unappealing. One of those aspects proved to be Bronislau Kaper’s score for the film. I found it bombastic, awkward and unmemorable. Enough said. I was also not that impressed by some of the performances found in the film – especially from some of the supporting cast and one of the major leads. And like many other historical or period dramas, “THE WAY WEST” suffered from a few historical inaccuracies. Wagon trains were usually pulled by either oxen or mules. The stock used to convey the “Liberty Wagon Train” from Missouri to Oregon proved to be a hodge podge of horses, mules and oxen. I realize that “THE WAY WEST” is basically a Western about overland travel, but I found the costumes designed by Norma Koch very disappointing. The costumes looked as if they came straight from a warehouse. None of the women wore any layers of petticoats or corsets. And Koch’s costume designs for the McBee family proved to be a real head scratcher. I got the feeling she was trying to convey the family’s background as Georgia dirt farmers barely able to afford the journey to Oregon. Their clothes looked threadbare in compare to their fellow emigrants. And it is a miracle that the McBees did not finish their journey nearly naked. If the McBees were able to afford the journey to Oregon, they could afford to wear better quality clothing than what they wore.

The biggest historical head scratcher occurred midway into the film. During a social gathering between the emigrants and a group of Sioux warriors, one of the emigrants mistook the Sioux leader’s son for a wolf. The emigrant killed the boy and failed to inform the others of the incident. This led the Sioux to later track down the wagon party and demand the killer face justice. Initially, the wagon emigrants refused to comply until they discovered that a very large party of warriors had accompanied the Sioux leader. I am sorry, but I found this scenario improbable. The only times I could recall that many Native Americans gathering at one spot in the history of the American West was at 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 present-day southern North Dakota and Wyoming to northern Colorado, I found this encounter between the Tadlock wagon party and the Sioux historically improbable.

Despite its flaws, I actually enjoyed “THE WAY WEST”. Very much. I can see why the original novel won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the first place. First of all, I enjoyed how the movie opened with a montage of westbound emigrants arriving and organizing in Independence to the movie’s The plot struck me as a solid psychological drama about how a group of strangers struggled to tolerate each other, while traveling long distance during a period between four to five months in a wagon train. Knowing myself, I would probably go crazy dealing with strangers who irritated me after more than two weeks. Perhaps less. And having to deal with a ruthless and controlling personality like former U.S. Senator William Tadlock? Good Lord!

In fact, I find it interesting how the megalomaniacal Tadlock seemed to have an impact on the other major subplots in this film, one way or the other. He and the easy-going farmer Lije Evans managed to consistently clash with each other from the beginning. Evans resents his controlling style of leadership, but seemed reluctant to replace him. The former senator’s attraction toward Lije’s wife Rebecca did not help matters. In onescene, Tadlock had offered himself as a potential wife to Rebecca . . . in case Lije failed to survive the journey to Oregon. I could not decide whether to be surprised or disgusted by his suggestion. Tadlock even had an impact on the Brownie Evans-Mercy McBee romantic quagmire with John and Amanda Mack.

And yet . . . despite being such a megalomaniacal personality, I must admit that I found some of Tadlock’s decisions. For example, Lije Evans and the other wagon party members wanted to fight the Sioux, instead of giving in to the latter’s demand for the Sioux boy’s killer. I suspect that a combination of racism and braggadocio led the emigrants believe it would be better to fight the Sioux than submit one of their own to justice. Tadlock, to his credit, realized it would be wiser to give in to the Sioux’s demand. I also found myself agreeing with his order that the emigrants ditch all non-essential possession in order to lighten the load for the stock that pulled their wagons. Unfortunately, Tadlock’s anger at Evans’ stubborn refusal to give up Mrs. Evans’ floor clock spun out of control and cost him his position as the wagon train’s leader. I would expand more about the human drama found in “THE WAY WEST”. But to do so would give away the plot.

Although I had a problem with the film’s music and costume designs, I certainly had none with its cinematography. “THE WAY WEST” was shot on location in Arizona and Oregon. And I found William H. Clothier’s cinematography outstanding, thanks to its sharp and colorful photography shown in the images below:

Another aspect of “THE WAY WEST” that impressed me, proved to be the sequence for its opening credits. This sequence was basically a montage of emigrants arriving in Independence, Missouri or forming wagon trains for the westbound journey. Despite Bronislau Kaper’s forgettable score and equally forgettable theme song, I thought the sequence permeated with atmosphere and strong sense of how Independence must have been during that period in history. The sequence’s strong atmosphere benefited from Andrew V. McLeglen’s skillful direction, Otho Lovering’s editing and Robert Priestley’s set direction.

For me, the performances in “THE WAY WEST” proved to be a mixed affair. A good number of the supporting performers gave some hammy performances. Most of them portrayed minor characters. But the two hammy performances that seemed to stand out belonged to Richard Widmark as Lije Evans and Jack Elam as Preacher Weatherby. Widmark seemed as if he was trying too hard to convey Evans’ good-natured personality . . . to the point that his performance seemed forced. I did not enjoy admitting that. Mind you, Widmark had some good moments, especially in those scenes in which Lije clashed with Tadlock. Otherwise . . . I found him just a tad over-the-top for my tastes. Elam portrayed a minister named Preacher Weatherby, who had sneaked aboard one of the wagons in an effort to join the wagon train. Not only did I find his portrayal of the “hell and brimstone” minister over-the-top, but also one-dimensional. On the other hand, there was one performance that seemed to go in the complete opposite direction. I am referring to Michael Witney, who portrayed John “Johnnie” Mack, one half of the newlywed couple and the object of Mercy McBee’s desire. Witney may have avoided giving a hammy performance, but he ended up being rather wooden – at least in my eyes. Watching his performance, I found myself wondering how his character managed to generate so much emotion from both Mercy McBee and his wife, Amanda.

Thankfully, “THE WAY WEST” had its share of good and excellent performances. Ironically, two of them came from Harry Carey Jr. and Connie Sawyer. Yes, I will admit they gave hammy performances as Mr. and Mrs. McBee. But their hamminess struck me as so entertaining that I could not dismiss the performances. It seemed as if both really enjoyed themselves. “THE WAY WEST” also featured solid performances from the likes of Patric Knowles, Stubby Kaye, Katherine Justice and Eve McVeagh.

But there were also exceptional performances in “THE WAY WEST”. One came from the likes of Lola Albright, who gave a competent performances as Rebecca Evans, a woman torn between her love for Lije. I thought Michael McGreevey, who gave a very skillful performance as the Evans’ shy and lovesick son, Brownie. Sally Field revealed signs of future stardom with a great performance as the ebullient, sexual and painfully naive Mercy McBee. Robert Mitchum seemed to be the film’s backbone, thanks to his portrayal of the wagon train’s warm, yet pragmatic scout Dick Summers. I especially enjoyed his scenes with McGreevey. But if I had to give the award for the film’s best performance, it would go to Kirk Douglas for his superb portrayal of the very complex and magnetic former Senator William Tadlock. Douglas’ performance struck me as so exceptionally complex that there were times I found myself wondering whether or not I should like him or not.

What else can I say about “THE WAY WEST”? Well, the movie had its flaws. I cannot deny it. But I feel that its virtues definitely outweighed its flaws. And I think that it does not deserve the lukewarm opinions it has received over the years. Thanks to screenwriters Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann; a first-rate cast led by Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark and Robert Mitchum; and excellent direction from Andrew V. McLaglen; I believe “THE WAY WEST” is a lot better than it is reputed to be.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1880s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1880s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1880s

1. “Stagecoach” (1939) – John Ford directed this superb adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story, “The Stage to Lordsburg”, about a group of strangers traveling by stagecoach through the Arizona territory. Claire Trevor, John Wayne and Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell starred.

2. “The Four Feathers” (2002) – Shekhar Kapur directed this fascinating adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about a former British Army officer accused of cowardice. Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou and Kate Hudson starred.

3. “Back to the Future Part III” (1990) – Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd starred in this third installment of the “BACK TO THE FUTURE” TRILOGY, in which Marty McFly travels back to the Old West to prevent the death of fellow time traveler, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown. Written by Bob Gale, the movie was directed by Robert Zemeckis.

4. “Topsy-Turvy” (1999) – Mike Leigh wrote and directed this biopic about W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and their creation of their most famous operetta, “The Mikado”. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner.

5. “Tombstone” (1993) – Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer starred in this colorful and my favorite account about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the famous O.K. Corral gunfight. George P. Cosmatos directed.

6. “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939) – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in this adaptation of William Gillette’s 1899 stage play, “Sherlock Holmes”. Directed by Alfred L. Werker, the movie co-starred Ida Lupino and George Zucco.

7. “The Cater Street Hangman” (1998) – Eoin McCarthy and Keeley Hawes starred in this television adaptation of Anne Perry’s 1979 novel about a serial killer in late Victorian England. Sarah Hellings directed.

8. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945) – Hurd Hatfield and George Sanders starred in this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel about a handsome young Englishman who maintains his youth, while a special portrait reveals his inner ugliness.

9. “High Noon” (1952) – Gary Cooper won his second Oscar as a town marshal forced to face a gang of killers by himself. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, the movie was written by blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman and co-starred Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado.

10. “Open Range” (2003) – Kevin Costner directed and co-starred with Robert Duvall in this western about a cattle crew forced to take up arms when they and their herd are threatened by a corrupt rancher.

“THE SHADOW RIDERS” (1982) Review

 

“THE SHADOW RIDERS” (1982) Review

When I first set out to discover how many of author Louis L’Amour novels had been adapted for the movies and television, I had assumed at least a handful had gone through this process. I was surprised to discover that many of his works had been adapted. And one of them turned out to be the 1982 television movie, “THE SHADOW RIDERS”.

I have only seen two L’Amour adaptations in my life – “THE SHADOW RIDERS” and the 1979 two-part miniseries, “THE SACKETTS”. Both productions seemed to have a great deal in common. The two productions are adaptations of L’Amour (which is obvious). Both featured three brothers as the protagonists. Both starred Sam Elliot, Tom Selleck and Jeff Osterhage as the leads. The two productions also feature Ben Johnson as a supporting protagonist and Gene Evans as a villain. But in the end, “THE SHADOW RIDERS” and “THE SACKETTS” have their differences. The latter aired as a two-part television movie or miniseries that mainly featured action and drama. “THE SHADOW RIDERS”, on the other hand, is a ninety-six minute television movie, with comic overtones.

L’Amour’s tale is basically about two brothers – Dal and Mac Travern – who returned home from the Civil War after fighting on different sides and discover that a company of Confederate cavalry had raided their family’s Texas ranch and the neighborhood for cattle, horses and especially people to sell in Mexico. Among those kidnapped by the raiders were other neighbors, the Traverns’ younger brother Jesse (also a Civil War veteran), their younger sisters Sissy and Heather, and Dal’s former sweetheart Kate Connery. The Confederate troopers, led by one Major Cooper Ashbury, hope to raise enough money or “merchandise” to trade for guns and ammunition from a notorious local gunrunner named “Colonel” Holiday Hammondin order to continue the fight against the Federal government.

Upon learning what happened, Dal and Mac discover that the local lawman, Miles Gillette, seem incapable of going after the raiders. And once the Traverns recruit their jailbird uncle “Black Jack” from prison to help them, Gillette becomes more obsessed with capturing the latter. With no law to help them, Dal and Mac set out to rescue their family with the help of their Uncle Jack; Jesse, who managed to escape from the raiders; and Kate, whom they managed to rescue halfway through the story.

It seemed rather odd that a story about family kidnapping would have a comic tone. I have read other reviews of the movie and some L’Amour fans seemed put off by this tone. Personally, I have no problems with it. Yes, I have read the novel and it was pretty good . . . and somewhat grim. But I thought director Andrew V. McLaglen and screenwriter Jim Byrnes did a pretty damn good job in mixing the grim nature of the story with a strong comic element. The screenplay did not shy away from the horror of Major Ashbury’s actions or how they affected the Travern family – especially Sissy and Heather. More importantly, most of the comedy came from the family interactions between members of the Travern family – especially Dal and Mac’s reunion at a local tavern right after the war, the three brothers’ reaction to Jack Travern’s criminal past and the emotional reunion between Dal and Kate, who had become engaged to another man after hearing about Dal’s erroneous death.

“THE SHADOW RIDERS” also featured some outstanding action sequences. My favorites include Jesse’s escape from Ashbury’s raiders, the three brothers’ rescue of Kate, and the family’s main rescue of the Travern sisters and their neighbors from Holliday Hammond’s camp in Mexico. Being a veteran of many movies and television productions set in the 19th century, it seemed obvious that McLeglen was in his element with “THE SHADOW RIDERS”. The action featured in the film struck me as very exciting, without any of the excess that seemed to mar a good number of action films and television shows, these days.

I only have few complaints about “THE SHADOW RIDERS”. Despite its comic element, the main narrative focused a good deal of situations that involved family reunions between the Travern family. I certainly had no problems with most of them. But I had a problem one – namely the Travern brothers’ reunion with their Uncle Jack, who was serving time at a local jail. I found it . . . rather lackluster. A bit too laconic and understated for my tastes. I understand that this scene featured mid 19th century American men, who may have been conditioned to keep their emotions in check. Yet, other reunion scenes – whether it was between Dal and Mac, or the pair’s reunion with Jesse or their parents – seemed to feature some element of emotion. Is it because the brothers were dealing with the slightly larcenous “Black Jack” Travern? Who knows. I also had a problem with Mac’s war background. The movie made it clear that he was a Union cavalry officer, who was in Georgia at the time the war ended in April-May 1865. I just do not understand why he was in Georgia at that time. He must have entered the state with William Sherman’s forces in 1864. So . . . why did he remain in Georgia and not accompany Sherman into South Carolina?

If anyone would ask me, I believe the shining virtue of “THE SHADOW RIDERS” was the cast. They were outstanding. All of them – from the four leads to the numerous characters that appeared in this movie – were first-rate. They all seemed very comfortable in their roles, while at the same time, managed to provide a good deal of edge to their performances. In“THE SHADOW RIDERS”; Sam Elliot, Tom Selleck and Jeff Osterhage renew the screen chemistry they had created in“THE SACKETTS” with great ease. However, I was a little disappointed that Osterhage’s role in this film seemed slightly diminished in compare to his role in the 1979 production. Katherine Ross made an excellent addition as the classy, yet strong-willed Kate Connery, who had been Dal’s former sweetheart. This also gave Ross an excellent opportunity to share some rather funny and romantic scenes with her off-screen husband, Elliot. Hell, she even managed to work well with Selleck, Osterhage, Geoffrey Lewis and Gene Evans.

Ben Johnson was a hoot as the Traverns’ laid-back, yet larcenous uncle, “Black Jack” Travern. I could also say the same about Gene Evans, who portrayed the very charming and very cold-blooded gunrunner, Holliday Hammond. On the other hand, Geoffrey Lewis made a very intense Cooper Ashbury, the Confederate cavalry officer who is determined to continue the War Between the States with only a company of men. “THE SHADOW RIDERS” also featured first-rate performances from veterans such as Jane Greer, Harry Carey Jr., and R.G. Armstrong; along with Dominique Dunne and Natalie May.

I may have had a problem with one or two scenes with “THE SHADOW RIDERS”. And yes, I found the Civil War background for one of the major characters a bit confusing. Otherwise, I really enjoyed the movie. I enjoyed it when I first saw it as a kid, many years ago on television. And my recent viewing only confirmed that my feelings about the production has not really changed one whit. Director Andrew V. McLeglen, screenwriter Jim Byrnes and a cast led by Sam Elliot and Tom Selleck continued to make this movie a joy to watch.

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Two – “THE WAY WEST”

the-way-west

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)

I. Introduction

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.