Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Tonight's Movie: The Way West (1967) at the Lone Pine Film Festival

One of the first couple films I saw at this year's Lone Pine Film Festival was THE WAY WEST (1967), starring Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, and Kirk Douglas.

While a majority of the films shown at the festival were filmed in the Lone Pine area, THE WAY WEST was shot in Oregon and Arizona. It was shown in honor of festival guest Michael McGreevey, who plays Widmark's son in the film.

McGreevey spoke briefly with moderator Rob Word before the screening; they're seen here in a photo taken during their chat. More on that later in this post.

THE WAY WEST was based on a novel by A.B. Guthrie Jr. which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. I read the book in the '80s and vaguely recall enjoying it but nothing further.

Despite my liking for Mitchum and Widmark, I had avoided the film for years due to reading various negative things about it from people whose opinions I respect. I found it slightly better than I expected, worth watching once for the deep cast and the fine location photography by William H. Clothier, but it has an overall sourness which never lifts. In the end, it's a fairly poor Western, especially considering what should have been, given the many talents who worked on it.

As implied by the title, the film is about a wagon train headed to settle Oregon. The train is organized by the widowed Senator William Tadlock (Douglas), who is making the journey with his young son (Stefan Arngrim, whose sister Alison was Nellie Oleson on TV's LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE). Tadlock convinces Dick Summers (Mitchum) to serve as trail guide; Summers has deep experience but is also hampered by failing eyesight.

The settlers include Lije (Widmark) and Becky (Lola Albright) Evans and their teenage son, the earnest Brownie (McGreevey); Brownie is quickly smitten with a girl on the train, Mercy McBee (Sally Field). The frisky Mercy sleeps with Mr. Mack (Michael Witney), a newlywed whose wife (Katherine Justice) refuses to have marital relations.

The settlers experience many travails, including Indian conflicts, accidental deaths, unexpected pregnancy, and more. Tadlock rules the train with an iron grip, and when a young Indian boy is accidentally shot, he threatens to sacrifice the life of Brownie Evans to satisfy the Indians, unless the person who actually did it comes forward.

For me the greatest pleasure of the film's 122 minutes was picking out the many great faces in the supporting cast. Harry Carey Jr. and a prematurely aged William Lundigan are close to unrecognizable behind shaggy beards; Patric Knowles (Will Scarlett in the 1938 THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD) welcomes the wagon train to a fort as they near the end of their journey.

Peggy Stewart, who passed on earlier this year and was honored with a special tribute at the festival, is another of the settlers, and Jack Elam is somewhat incongruously cast as the parson. John Mitchum, Connie Sawyer (who died last year at 105), Stubby Kaye, Elisabeth Fraser, and Nick Cravat are also on hand. The sheer number of interesting actors in beautiful settings helped keep my attention focused despite the film's shortcomings.

Otherwise, the film, directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, is fairly leaden, filled with "ick" moments which were unpleasant to watch and frankly also unsettling to contemplate days after watching. Many of those scenes center around Douglas's martinet of a wagon train leader, who is also, pure and simple, a weirdo; he's supposed to be rather villainous, but even given that, I don't find Douglas enjoyable to watch. He weights down most of the films in which he appears, and this is no exception.

Mitchum and Widmark are more appealing yet suffer from a lack of character development, due to poor scripting, editing, or both; we jump right into getting to know them as the wagon train is leaving and scrape together some of their back stories as we go, but there's much left unexplained.

Add in Mr. Mack's, er, marital issues, the poor choices made by Mack and Mercy, multiple children killed in accidents, and a man being hung, and there wasn't much in this film to enjoy. (While I'm at it, why was a plainly disturbed woman left to be lowered to the canyon floor last?! That made no sense and led to another violent moment.) Other Westerns, such as the superb WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1951), handle some similarly tough issues yet manage to leave the audience feeling inspired rather than needing a shower.

As with many period films of the '60s, the movie also suffers from anachronistic "pouffy" women's hairstyles; they're not as bad as in some '60s films, such as NIGHT OF THE GRIZZLY (1966) or BATTLE OF BRITAIN (1969), but the look still screams "This movie was made in the 1960s!"

I've seen a great many Westerns, and THE WAY WEST is, sadly, a lower tier effort, with scattered scripting (by Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann), underdeveloped characters, and a negative overtone, spending the majority of its screentime on unpleasant incidents, while rarely taking time to celebrate the courage of the brave settlers.

THE WAY WEST is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

Michael McGreevey has had a long and interesting career, starting out as a child actor in films such as THE GIRL MOST LIKELY (1958), where he had a bit role, and DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959), where he was the little boy held hostage by Burl Ives' gang.

McGreevey explained that after taking time off to be a "normal" kid in high school, he found himself on a plane to Oregon the day after graduation, to costar in THE WAY WEST. He would later do quite a bit of work for Disney, including SNOWBALL EXPRESS (1972). After acting in an episode of THE WALTONS in 1973, he went on to write a few episodes of the series, where his father John also wrote scripts for many years, including classic episodes such as "The Foundling" (the very first episode) and "The Easter Story."

Along with his writing career, Mike McGreevey also worked as a producer, including the 1980s TV series FAME.

McGreevey shared a wonderful anecdote about Robert Mitchum and his remarkable memory; he recounted how a lengthy new speech was written for Mitchum's character and he had someone recite it to him, then went in front of the camera and performed it, letter perfect.

My husband and I had the chance to chat with Mr. McGreevey and his wife later in the weekend, which was a real treat. They are very nice people, and I was glad of the opportunity to share how much both SNOWBALL EXPRESS and THE WALTONS meant to me as I was growing up, and beyond. I actually had the opportunity to meet his father at a WALTONS event many years ago so it was very "full circle" being able to also meet Mike!

More Lone Pine Film Festival coverage coming soon!


Blogger DKoren said...

I started this movie awhile back and just couldn't get more than about 15 minutes in. Despite the fact that I love the cast, it just wasn't working from the get-go. Glad to know I didn't miss anything!

Love hearing the stories about it, though.

12:55 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

That's really interesting to hear your reaction to it, Deb, especially as our tastes so frequently align. I was glad I saw it all the way through once just to see the cast but yeah, you didn't miss much. :)

Best wishes,

7:45 PM  

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