As you might expect with a title like this John Wayne was in the frame, at least at the start. But when Burt Lancaster’s production outfit Hecht-Lancaster bought the property that was the end of that casting idea. Hecht-Lancaster was at its peak in 1956, each of its first 11 pictures turning a profit, and just signed up to a $40 million three-year deal with United Artists. Biggest project on the table: $5 million for The Way West with a dream team of Lancaster, James Stewart and Gary Cooper and a script from Clifford Odets (The Sweet Smell of Success, 1957). But by 1959 the dream had soured, with $545,000 already shelled out on the western with no sign of a start date. A year later the project was shelved. When Harold Hecht split from Lancaster, the rights reverted to United Artists.
Hecht’s initial efforts as a solo producer had not paid off, Taras Bulba (1962), Flight from Ashiya (1964), both starring Yul Brynner, and Tony Curtis comedy Wild and Wonderful (1964) all covered in red ink, before suddenly resurfacing with the hit Cat Ballou (1965), making him imminently more bankable than before. However, given the impact music had in Cat Ballou, Hecht hankered after something in the same vein, except bigger, and bought the rights to Finian’s Rainbow, a Broadway hit from 1947. When casting issues caused delay, Hecht signed a one-picture deal with United Artists for The Way West. The studio had such high hopes for the movie that plans were made for its world premiere to be held at the Houston Astrodome, a first, and it was considered a natural for roadshow treatment.
A substantial rejig was required of the source material, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel by A.B. Guthrie, by screenwriters Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann, not least to ensure that the character played by Kirk Douglas remained with the wagon train until the end of the trail, unlike in the book. Andrew V. McLaglen, with three box office western hits behind him in McLintock (1963) starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, Shenandoah (1965) with James Stewart and The Rare Breed (1966) co-starring Stewart and O’Hara, was first choice to sit in the director’s chair.
Charlton Heston (El Cid, 1961) was approached to play the lead of Senator Tadlock. When he turned it down, Kirk Douglas signed on for his first western in five years – although his next would also be a western, The War Wagon (1967) with John Wayne – Robert Mitchum (Villa Rides, 1968) was offered the choice of either scout Dick Summers or firebrand Life Evans. At the end of a long lunch with Hecht and McLaglen, Mitchum could not make up his mind and the producer and director assigned him the role of the scout.
“I’m awfully glad it worked out the way it did,” recalled McLaglen, “because Widmark was perfect for the other part and Mitchum was perfect for the scout.” It might not have been Widmark because Max von Sydow was also reputedly offered a part. Von Sydow was too big a star to play any of the other supporting parts and the part assigned to Widmark was Scandinavian so in that sense an ideal fit.
While Widmark did not attempt a Scandinavian accent, Mitchum spoke Lakota, apparently with a decent accent, in several scenes where he had to communicate with Native Americans. He didn’t learn the language, as modern actors might do, but simply recited the words spoken to him off-camera. Mitchum and Douglas had acted together in Out of the Past (1947), where the former had the larger role, and, while not sharing scenes, appeared in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), where the billing was reversed. Although not in a directorial capacity McLaglen had worked with Mitchum on Blood Alley (1956) before the actor was fired.
It was an arduous shoot, virtually the whole picture shot as exteriors, in Tucson, Arizona, and in various locations in Oregon including Bend, Christmas Valley and the Crooked River Gorge. Around 400 members of cast and crew made the trek. In the absence of CGI, everything seen on the screen was achieved for real without any recourse to blue screen. The desert was real. When the river was forded, it was with real wagons and the cast. The wagons were raised and then lowered from the tops of cliffs using the old-fashioned methods that would have been available at the time, that is by rope-and-tackle.
In order to begin filming or play less arduous scenes on top of the cliffs, cast and crew went up in a ski lift. “You’re up there, hundreds of feet up, nothing but rocks to call on,” Jack Elam remembered. “If you had to go to the bathroom it was a matter of half an hour down and half an hour up.” When the wagons were lowered down the cliff all the actors at some point had to participate and according to Elam “some people landed in the hospital.” The river crossing was no less dangerous, with the potential for drowning a constant hazard.
“Andy McLaglen…was wonderful through the whole thing. Stayed calm through thick and thin,” said Elam. Added assistant director Terry Morse, “Nothing intimidated him…for all the difficulties he kept it right on schedule.”
Given three stars with reputations, it was not surprising there were flashpoints, Kirk Douglas, apparently, at the heart of most, accused of snatching newspapers out of the hands of supporting players and trying to usurp the director. Commented Harry Carey Jr., “He tried to take over the thing at some point. Widmark got furious at it, very agitated. He screamed, ‘You’re not directing this goddam movie.’ Really raised hell with Douglas.”
Said McLaglen, “Somebody like Kirk Douglas and somebody like Mitchum, they were poles apart in personality. Bob was an easygoing guy and Kirk was more volatile. But there was never a feud.” Just how easygoing Mitchum was – a production assistant was assigned to keep an eye on him just in case he got carried away with his predilection for fishing and was wading in the water when it was time for his next scene.
Kirk Douglas thought so little of the picture there’s not a single mention of it in his autobiography The Ragman’s Son.
The movie wrapped on August 29, two days ahead of schedule, which was quite remarkable given how tough the shoot had been. The fact that it took almost a year to reach screens suggested UA had problems with the finished product. Andrew McLaglen asserted that it had been shorn by nearly 30 minutes after the first round of cinema screenings, but that memory seems faulty given that the film Variety reviewed the movie in mid-May 1967 – a month before its world premiere in Eugene, Oregon, on June 13 – ran 122 minutes, the stated running time. Critics were not kind but the director thought it was “a terrific picture” and “one of the things I dream about today.”
SOURCES: Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster, An American Life (Aurum Press, 2000) p171,192, 194; Lee Server, Robert Mitchum, Baby I Don’t Care, (Faber and Faber, 2002), p491-495; Kirk Douglas, The Ragman’s Son (Simon & Schuster, 2012); “Largest Independent Motion Picture Deal,” Variety, April 13, 1956; “Hollywood Report,” Box Office, November 15, 1965, p20; “Hecht’s Oncer for UA,” Variety, March 30, 1966, p5; “Astrodome May Show Hollywood’s Way West,” Variety, May 4, 1966, p12; “Hecht Finishes Production of UA’s The Way West,” Box Office, September 5, 1966, pW5; “Review,” Variety, May 17, 1967, p6.