"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.