How this crispy-told beautifully-mounted character-driven western ever languished among the also-rans is beyond me. I suspect the specter of John Ford hung heavily over it in the eyes of critics at the time but it more correctly belongs to the cycle of Cecil B. DeMille westerns that told stories with a true historical bent. Often detrimentally compared to How the West Was Won (1963), which told a similar tale of endeavor, this movie deliberately lacks that movie’s inflated drama in which every incident was built up, not least influenced by the need for Cinerama effect, rather than seeking an authentic truth.
Plainly put, the difference is here there are no charges, no races, no fording of rivers in the wrong places. Native Americans are treated with respect. Above all, an epic crossing of the continent with fully-loaded wagons is necessarily going to be slow, risk avoided at all costs, and yet this is not without incident or character arc. In fact, the script is terrific, not just dialogue that rings true, but among the elements brought into play are male rivalry, clash with authority, guilt, young love, revenge, vision, justice, America in embryo. That the movie maintains a stately pace, no fistfights descending into brawls, and a shock ending indicate a director in charge of his material.
Based on A.B. Guthrie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel set in 1843, the first wagon train heads for Oregon under the iron rule of Senator William Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) and guided by a scout with failing eyesight in Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum), both men widowed and in emotional limbo, and in the cantankerous company of Lije Evans (Richard Widmark) and his glamorous wife Rebecca (Lola Albright). There’s a stowaway (Jack Elam), a preacher who can’t afford the price of transportation, an illicit love affair between the vibrant and lusty Mercy (Sally Field) who “hankers after any three-legged boy” but makes eyes at married man Johnnie Mack (Michael Witney), and enough obstacles to keep less determined settlers from reaching their promised land.
Tadlock is the visionary, a politician suffering from an overblown estimation of his self-worth, who “might have been President except for a woman,” ruthless, valuing only his own ideas. “Point the way,” he tells Summers, “don’t gall me with opinions.” For fear it might interfere with his role as commander, he hides his vulnerability. There’s a plaintive moment when he shares his vision of a city with Rebecca, on the one hand full of his own importance, on the other clearly needing the pat on the back. Later, an occasion of death sees him falling prostate with grief on a grave and on breaking his own laws demands to whipped. The over confident blustering individual is by the end almost suicidal. What is a leader if there is no one to lead?
Summers stoically accepts his infirmity, constantly dropping his head so his eyes are hidden from sight under his hat as if his ailment could be easily detected, mourning the loss of his Native American wife, and while full of Western lore as easily passing on gentle wisdom about love, and his “lucky necklace” to an unrequited lover, but still accused of unworldliness, “for a smart man you ain’t got a lick of sense.” Evans bristles at any authority, believing independence means he goes his own way, especially if that permits the freedom to get drunk at a time of his choosing, and especially once he realizes such lack of inhibition riles the repressed Tadlock. But his fondness for alcohol triggers an incident that almost costs his son his life.
Celebrations he started catch the attention of the nearby Sioux and in the communal drunkenness a Native American child is accidentally killed. In the best scene in the film battle Sioux seeking justice and intent on attack are thwarted only by the “sacrifice” of the killer.
The picture is packed full of incident, many characters coming alive in a single shot or with one line of dialogue. A woman tramps on her husband’s foot to prevent him challenging Tadlock’s authority. A woman with a baby retorts that she is afraid when bolder settlers facing potential Native American attack assert the opposite. The bravest man in the camp, the first volunteer to be lowered down a canyon, dies when his rope snaps.
There are any number of reversals. Buffalo, instead of being a danger and prone to stampede, create a dust cloud to hide behind. Rivers are crossed at sensible points, rapids avoided. An African-American whips a white man. A boy becomes a man through honor rather than violence. Stories, large and small, play out in a succinct script.
Kirk Douglas (The Arrangement, 1969) is superb as a man whose iron core deserts him. Robert Mitchum (Secret Ceremony, 1968), in almost a supporting role, excellent in full awareness that the sight on which his reputation and job depend will vanish, brings a subtlety to his performance that would be recognized as ideal for Ryan’s Daughter (1970). Richard Widmark (The Bedford Incident, 1965), who is generally simmering, gets to mix in a bit of fun in with the simmering.
Lola Albright (A Cold Wind in August, 1961) swaps seductiveness for sense. In her debut Sally Field (Smokey and the Bandit, 1977), filled with zip and zest, sparkles as the lusty young woman and it’s astonishing to realize she would not make another movie for nearly a decade while another debutante Katherine Justice (Five Card Stud, 1968) finds her inner fire when it’s too late. There’s supporting talent a plenty – Jack Elam (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968), Stubby Kaye (Cat Ballou, 1965), Harry Carey Jr. (The Undefeated, 1969) and William Lundigan (The Underwater City, 1962) in only his second film of the decade.
Director Andrew V. McLaglen (The Rare Breed, 1966) captures the correct tone for the film, making up for the essential slow pace with brilliant use of widescreen, coaxing great performances from all concerned. Screenwriters Ben Maddow (The Chairman, 1969) and Mitch Lindemann (The Careless Years, 1957) compress Guthrie’s tome with considerable skill.
Woefully underrated at the time and since, this deserves reassessment. This is a truer version of how the west was won. And I surely can’t be alone in demanding that McLaglen’s talent be more properly recognized.