Book into Film: “The Way West” (1967)

Screenwriters Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann earned their keep on this one. The source was a literate historical novel by A.B. Guthrie which, despite winning the Pulitzer Prize, was seen primarily as a western. In considerable detail, it covered what a wagon train heading to Oregon needed to do and know in order to make the 2,000-mile trip. It is a fascinating read, told from many points of view. But very little of the book found its way into the film.

It wouldn’t have been much of a film if the screenwriters had simply followed the book structure, for much of that was internalized, thoughts and feelings of the settlers, dramatic incident not so much. So if this was going to be a big-budget western it needed a lot more.

The paperback was sold as a western not as a novel of literary merit so it was inevitable
that the Native Americans who played a minor role in the book took center stage
on the book cover to target the expected audience.

What isn’t in the book: Tadlock (Kirk Douglas) isn’t a Senator for a start, he’s not a widow and doesn’t have a child. He’s not a visionary either with some grandiose map of how he envisages the town he’ll build. He doesn’t hang a man, get a whipping or die falling over a cliff. He’s quit the wagon train long before the cliff section. And he stopped being the leader of the expedition less than halfway through the book.

What isn’t in the book: Evans (Richard Widmark) isn’t overfond of alcohol, doesn’t create an unforced halt in order to celebrate Independence Days several days too soon, doesn’t have a grandfather clock whose loss causes him to lose his rag with Tadlock, in fact it’s he who picks the fight after discovering Tadlock intends to hang a thieving Native American.

What isn’t in the book: Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum) isn’t losing his eyesight, though recently widowed his wife wasn’t a Native American, and he doesn’t have a lucky necklace to pass on to a young man or woman.

So there’s a whole passel of wonder right there. The screenwriters have instantly dramatized all three leading characters by providing them with different attributes, making Tadlock and Summers more sympathetic than in the book, rendering Evans less sympathetic. The problem with the book’s Summers is that what makes him interesting is his lore, his knowledge of everything to do with the West, little of which translates to the screen. So providing the toughest of them all with an impediment allows him an immediate story arc.

What isn’t in the book: a Native American child is not killed by a settler, there’s no settler hanged by Tadlock to placate the warring tribe. There’s no warring tribe. There’s no race with other wagon trains at the outset and no racing across a river to get ahead of a rival. There’s no stowaway preacher either, though there is a preacher (Jack Elam). There is only one stop along the way in the film, at Fort Hall, but two in the book, the other being Laramie.

What isn’t in the book, I’m sorry to say, is the wonderful sequence of lowering wagons down a cliff, and Brownie (Michael McGreevy) marries Mercy (Sally Field) because otherwise she’s going to leave the wagon train at Fort Hall and he doesn’t make a pledge in public that her unborn child is his. And there’s no part for Stubby Kaye.

This hardback cover gives far better representation of the novel’s content.

Some of the more solid emotional material is retained. The frigidity of Mrs Mack (Katherine Justice) remains, giving her husband (Michael Witney) the excuse to seduce Mercy, considerably more innocent in the book, where she is described not as sassy but awkward in adult company, “growed up in body and not in knowing.”  While not loving Brownie, she marries him for convenience, though she learns to love him. Brownie gets advice on handling Mercy from Summers and much of that dialog is imported straight from the book.

From the book comes the idea of the settlers chiseling their names on the rock, of Brownie, while doing so, being captured by Native Americans and being traded back to his father.

Cover of the British Corgi movie tie-in paperback printed in 1967.

But there are some ideas lifted from the book out of sequence that the screenwriters build up into major dramatic incidents. The river crossing at the start of the film is taken from the river crossing near the end of the book. Close to the start of the novel, Mack kills a Native American, whose tribe seek justice but are sent away empty handed by Tadlock. That becomes a key sequence in the film when Mack is hanged by Tadlock. A child is killed by a rattlesnake and that is transferred to a different father who gives full expression to his grief.

The screenwriters exacerbate the tensions between the characters, create more moments of high drama, invent the visionary element, and are responsible for the vast bulk of crisp dialogue. While the dialogue in the book sounds authentic, it lacks the brittleness and thrust of the words spoken in the film.

A.B. Guthrie was a celebrated American novelist, a journalist who had come to fiction late, over 40 when he produced his first book, a mystery novel set in the West. But after winning a fellowship to Harvard, his writing took a literary turn, and his West did not take the traditional romanticized view. Two of his novels had been filmed – The Big Sky (1952) starring Kirk Douglas and These Thousand Hills (1959) directed by Richard Fleischer – and he had written an Oscar-nominated screenplay for Shane (1953), based on the Jack Schaefer novel, as well as for The Kentuckian, based on the Felix Holt book. The Way West had become such a touchstone for originality and an acclaimed masterpiece that it seemed impossible to turn it into a film.

Whether the film’s negative critical reaction and audience disregard was down to the screenplay veering so far away from what was considered a classic novel is hard to say. This is a very good example of a book that appeared unfilmable being somehow turned into a more than watchable film.     

And I can recommend the book.

The Way West (1967) ****

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.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.