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In his heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, director Andrew V. McLaglen had a consistently good eye for locations and a fine knack for attracting powerhouse casts. More often than not, these were the best things about his otherwise banal movies, and The Way West (1967) is no exception. Expertly photographed by William Clothier, who worked with McLaglen eleven times, the locations are indeed magnificent - Oregon has probably never looked better. And topping the cast are Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark. Yet these factors cannot overcome a weak script that tries to tell too many stories or direction which is at best uninspired.
McLaglen learned from such icons as John Ford and John Wayne when he served as assistant director on movies like The Quiet Man (1952) and The High and the Mighty (1954). In his own movies, which include Shenandoah (1965), The Rare Breed (1966) and The Undefeated (1969), McLaglen seemed to be trying hard for a Fordian effect, but he came close only in his landscape compositions (and his frequent use of Wayne). There's a lot more to Ford, of course, such as a complexity and depth of feeling to the characters, and a unique mixing of the personal and the mythic.
In The Way West, Kirk Douglas plays a widowed senator and Robert Mitchum a trail scout with failing eyesight who lead a wagon train of pioneers from Missouri to Oregon. The property certainly had a good pedigree - it was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., who had written the screenplays for Shane (1953) and The Kentuckian (1955) as well as the novel of The Big Sky (1952). Sometimes these things look better on paper, however; while the budget was A-level ($5 million), the picture would gross only $1.67 million. Co-star Jack Elam later recalled the challenges of the complicated shoot: "Physically, it was as tough as it could possibly be. Working on the cliffs and in the sand. And then long days in the river, cold water, a lot of risks of drowning. Lowering wagons down the cliff, and we all had to take part in it. Some people landed in the hospital."
Douglas and Mitchum had appeared in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) but not in any scenes together, making The Way West their first on-screen reunion since Out of the Past (1947). According to Lee Server's biography Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care, Douglas's ego created some tension. "Kirk was arrogant and rude to everybody," remembered assistant director Terry Morse. "He wanted everything his way." Co-star Harry Carey, Jr., concurred, calling Douglas "a pain in the neck. He tried to take over the thing at some point. Widmark got furious at it, very agitated. He screamed, 'You're not directing this go***mn movie!' Really raised hell with Douglas. Bob just laughed at it."
The easygoing Mitchum, in fact, ended up stealing the show from his fellow stars with a laid-back, relaxed performance, even though he was essentially just playing himself. McLaglen recalled how he cast Mitchum: "I went to have lunch with Mitchum and Harold Hecht, the producer. Kirk Douglas was signed to the part of the senator. And we flat-out said to Bob, 'Which part do you want? The husband or the scout? Take either part, whichever you want.' And all during lunch he wouldn't say, just 'I don't care; I don't care.' So what the hell, we gave him the part we thought he was best for, the scout. And he shrugged, and I'm awfully glad it worked out the way it did, because Widmark was perfect for the other part and Mitchum was perfect for the scout."
Mitchum's apathy, however, extended all the way to the location. Once there, he was at times more interested in fishing than acting. Terry Morse remembered that Mitchum would cast his fishing line even between takes when shooting along a river bank. "Sometimes he would get so concentrating on the fishing that he would walk away from the set, start moving along downstream. All of a sudden we'd be ready for him and he'd just disappeared. We had to assign a production assistant to keep an eye on him." In another sign of his laid-back nature, according to a separate biography, Mitchum bunked with the wranglers on location while Douglas and Widmark rented private houses.
Making her movie debut as a sagebrush tart is Sally Field. Best-known at the time as television's Gidget, she would go on to win two Academy Awards, for Norma Rae (1979) and Places in the Heart (1984). While Mitchum, Douglas and Widmark were all Oscar®-nominated over the years, none ever won the award.
Producer: Harold Hecht
Director: Andrew V. McLaglen
Screenplay: Mitch Lindemann, Ben Maddow, based on the novel by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.
Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Editing: Otho Lovering
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Art Direction: Ted Haworth
Cast: Kirk Douglas (Sen. William J. Tadlock), Robert Mitchum (Dick Summers), Richard Widmark (Lije Evans), Lola Albright (Rebecca Evans), Sally Field (Mercy McBee), Katherine Justice (Amanda Mack), Jack Elam (Preacher Weatherby), Stubby Kaye (Sam Fairman), William Lundigan (Michael Moynihan), Patric Knowles (Col. Grant).
by Jeremy Arnold