The Way West, a sweeping 1967 Western directed by Andrew V. McLaglen and produced by Harold Hecht, has a lot working in its favor: stars, scenery, a spacious story, and a stirring sense of pioneering possibility. Its primary failure, however, is its exceeding ambition to capitalize on all these facets, to employ each of them, accentuate them, then to seemingly step aside as it moves on from one feature to another. From the overzealous score by Bronislau Kaper to its throng of smiling, optimistic faces, populating an Oregon-bound wagon train setting off from 1843 Missouri, The Way West is too much, and somehow not enough. At just over two hours in length, its multiple plot points (points, not necessary lines) are rushed, and yet the film still feels sluggish. There’s a charm in its initial impetus, as these westward travelers embark with the highest of hopes, as these rough and tumble, salt of the earth folks engage in tobacco spitting contests (won by a woman) and form makeshift civilizations (including an itinerant judge who can supply a haircut, dental work, funerals, and weddings). But all too often, the film’s grand scope gets ahead of itself, overriding its narrative and character development.
The Way West is undeniably well cast, though. Donning a red cape and brandishing an ostentatious cane, Kirk Douglas leads the Oregon Liberty Train as Senator William Tadlock. His gentlemanly nature and dapper demeanor appear at odds with the situation and the locale, but Tadlock’s personality perfectly suits Douglas’ own determined disposition. Tadlock is severe when he needs to be and can be driven to a fault, but his dedication reveals a complementary, contrasting temperament, with subtle shades of humanity and frustrating, if admirable, pragmaticism, repeatedly checking his pocket watch, for instance, and adhering to an unwavering schedule. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Robert Mitchum’s Dick Summers, a renowned scout who is now, following the death of his Native American wife, rather worse for wear. Tadlock, also widowed, knows of Summers’ aptitude and contends the savvy explorer has let grief corrupt his guts. Like much else about The Way West, this prevailing anguish is an emphatic aspect to start, but is only occasionally rehashed, making room for whatever the next dilemma may be. Nevertheless, Summers is something of a wildcard, largely because of Mitchum’s performance. He has the capacity for effortless humor and sympathy, and his past association with the Native American lifestyle, knowing their language and understanding their culture, proves beneficial. But there is the endless potential for more; his slipshod, buckskin bearing and casual conduct suggest a generally unrealized rowdiness and daring. Either way, easygoing Mitchum is wholly unaffected and untroubled, suitable to his true self, it seems, as the star evidently slipped away from set more than once to take in some nearby fishing.
Embodying the forging spirit of the picture, passionately and credibly declaring, “I’ve gotta go where I’ve not been,” is Richard Widmark as Lije Evans, a farmer joined by his wife and teenage son. Widmark is earnest in his commitment, but as Evans is a far less complicated character, he also, in turn, has less behavioral room to roam, compared to Douglas and Mitchum. Evans is prone to drink and somewhat understandable defiance, typically directed toward the overbearing Tadlock, an antagonism mirrored behind the scenes as well, as Mitchum and Widmark routinely butted heads with usurping Douglas for many of the same reasons Evans and Summers squabble with the domineering Tadlock. Rounding out the cast of note is Sally Field, in her first featured film role. While she certainly didn’t carry the big screen weight of the The Way West’s three male leads—20-year-old Field was best known as the titular teen Gidget—it’s an auspicious debut all the same. As Mercy McBee, a surprisingly licentious, barefoot wildcat, disposed to flirtations and apparently much else, she becomes pregnant after a wooded fling with married man Johnnie Mack (Michael Witney), who describes her aptly as “hellfire and sin,” but ends up married to Evans’ son, Brownie (Michael McGreevey), who guilelessly loves the young woman with utmost fidelity. Mercy must have been a scandalous character in 1967—she is a risqué, youthful type rarely seen in the traditional Western—but she’s even more fascinating today, especially in light of what Sally Field would become.
The various incidents presented in The Way West occur abruptly and with adequate initial interest.Johnnie Mack comes on to Evans’ wife, setting up that probable clash, and when Mack accidentally shoots the son of a Sioux chief, the deed all but guarantees an external threat to the convoy. These mini-dramas are usually short-lived, though, as the film proceeds to include everything from a hanging and Summers’ impending blindness, to perilous sickness, the tragic death of a child, and the cheery birth of another; there’s even a scene of Tadlock enlisting his servant to whip him as a form of penance. There is just so much going on, and McLaglen and company either can’t keep up or simply get carried away. Certain concepts manage to stand out—a suspenseful scene where the contingent manipulates a buffalo herd as mobile camouflage, nervously avoiding sudden movements and sounds to avert a stampede—as do some discreet, potent images—the picture of the chief’s dead son mounted on horseback. But none of this lasts, as repeated soap opera crescendos undercut complete enrichment.
Similarly, Oscar-winning producer Hecht (1956’s Best Picture, Marty) overcrowds the film with conventional elements of the genre: competing wagon trains, natural perils and obstacles, river crossings and the scorching desert climate, square dancing, exceptionally cartoonish Indians, macho posturing, etc. With a screenplay by Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann, the former a prolific writer infamously subject to the blacklist, the latter also serving as the film’s associate producer, The Way West is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by A. B. Guthrie, Jr., who also wrote the novel upon which the Douglas-starring frontier drama The Big Sky (1952) was adapted and later penned the script for Shane (1953). McLaglen, son of Victor McLaglen, a friendly face in the John Ford coterie, channels the legendary director to mimic a similar, if comparably shallow, perception of scenic wonder and rustic conflict. And with cinematographer William H. Clothier, no stranger to the genre himself (he was coming off two Oscar nominations, one for the John Wayne directed The Alamo, 1960, the other for Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, 1964), The Way West was envisioned as something of an update of 1930’s The Big Trail, even replicating certain scenes, specifically the lowering of people, supplies, animals, and wagons down a precarious canyon. Still, even with a $5 million budget (it grossed $1.67 million), it fails to capture the same breathtaking grandeur, though as evinced on the newly released Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-ray, the picturesque imagery still holds up (a fine transfer, marred only by some fading color, is the highlight of this barebones disc, which otherwise contains just a theatrical trailer). There is, then, considerable Western pedigree behind The Way West, and for the most part, it shows. But what is essentially a compendium of the form’s greatest hits ultimately falters as the brash and prominent tune has a sound all too familiar, without ever reaching a steady tone of its own.