Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Westerns and the overall filmmaking process. Click here to listen.
Week 144: The Way West
This Western has great ambitions. It features three movie stars as its trio of leading men, a packed supporting cast, and a story of Biblical proportions. With a director like John Ford in command, it might have worked. But the serviceable Andrew V. McLaglen can’t quite pull it off.
On one hand, the location photography and staging of some scenes is breathtaking. McLaglen truly astonishes by creating real danger with his river crossings, encounters with buffalo, and the lowering of wagons down cliff sides. In these moments, the film truly soars and I would recommend watching it to any Western fan for that reason alone. Unfortunately, the narrative does not deliver on the same level.
Based on the book by A.B. Guthrie Jr. (The Big Sky, another adaptation of his work is superior), it is the screenplay by Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann that derails this Western epic. The story succeeds in showing the brutality of this journey from the hanging of a fairly decent man who makes a fatal mistake to the casual but devastating deaths of many travelers along the trail. What it fails to do is create a cohesive relationship and character arch among its leading men. Kirk Douglas does a fine job but the script can’t decide which direction to take his dictatorial character and when he finally does make a change, it happens for the wrong reason or seemingly no reason at all whereas a previous tragic incident in the film would have been a great dramatic tool. It could have been a powerful performance on the level of John Wayne’s in Red River but the script does not serve Douglas well. Widmark is one of my favorites but the filmmakers fail to make his actions distinct enough to make him a viable opponent for Douglas. If any of the actors succeed in the picture, it is Mitchum who plays the fading explorer. His worn out quality plays well and he’s a consistent ground force in a movie that is otherwise often uneven.
Like I said, it’s worth watching just for the staging of certain scenes but sadly, the film does not come together. I wonder if Guthrie’s work is ripe for new adaptation, especially in a miniseries format.
Watched on Tubi.