"The Way West" is a grand epic western with something in common with "How the West Was Won" from a few years earlier. Both films deal with the opening up of the American West, although "The Way West" takes place over a much shorter timeline than the earlier film, which followed the history of a single family over several generations. It tells the story of a group of pioneers making their way overland to Oregon by wagon train in 1843. There are several interlocking plot lines. One concerns the rivalry between the group's leader, Senator William Tadlock, and a farmer named Lije Evans. Evans resents the Senator's autocratic attitudes and what he sees as Tadlock's attentions to his attractive wife Rebecca. Another storyline concerns the romance between Evans's teenage son Brownie and a girl named Mercy McBee, and another the troubled relationship between young married couple Johnnie and Amanda Mack.
The film includes three established big-name stars in the shape of Kirk Douglas as Tadlock, Robert Mitchum as Dick Summers, the expedition's hired guide, and Richard Widmark as Evans. Sally Field, in the early part of her career better known as a television actress but later to become a major Hollywood star herself, also appears in her first big film role as Mercy. Douglas rarely played an outright villain, but his characters were not always outright heroes either; he was also capable of playing conflicted or morally ambiguous individuals. Examples include Midge Kelly in "Champion" and Jonathan Shields in "The Bad and the Beautiful", and Tadlock is another. This is not Douglas's greatest performance- certainly not as good as the two just mentioned- but it does show his ability to create characters who are flawed but not wholly unsympathetic.
Tadlock is an idealist with a vision of America's destiny to open up the vast expanses of the West, but is also abrupt, autocratic and apt to alienate people. He can also be devious, as when he manufactures a smallpox scare in order to prevent his followers from accepting a British offer to settle down short of their goal. (At this period the Oregon Territory was jointly ruled by the United States and Great Britain). There are, however, also times when we feel for him, especially when his young son is killed in an accident. Another difficult moment comes when Johnnie Mack shoots and kills an Indian boy. The killing was an accident- Johnnie thought he was shooting at a wolf- but because the boy was the son of a chief the Indians demand justice. The senator is reluctantly forced to hang the young man, knowing that if he does not the entire wagon train is likely to be massacred. In doing so, however, he makes an implacable enemy of Amanda.
Like "How the West Was Won", this film is probably best seen on the big screen, but until my local cinema decides to run a season of lesser- known Westerns from the sixties- which will doubtless be "never"- I will have to content myself with seeing it on television. Like many Westerns from the fifties and sixties it features some striking photography of the magnificent scenery of the American West; like some other films about east-to-west journeys across the continent (such as "The Far Horizons") it concentrates more on the passage through the Rocky Mountains than on the crossing of the less conventionally picturesque Great Plains. There is one particularly striking sequence where the pioneers lower their wagons, their livestock and themselves over a cliff with ropes in order to avoid a lengthy detour before winter sets in.
"The Way West" is never, in my opinion at least, likely to rank among the really great Westerns. Yes, the photography is good, but photography alone is not normally enough to qualify a Western, or any other film, for greatness. ("Days of Heaven" may be an exception to that last statement). Despite all those big names in the cast, there is no really outstanding acting performance, and the film lacks the strength of characterisation and the moral depth of something like "The Naked Spur", "The Big Country", "The Shootist" or "Lonely Are the Brave", possibly Douglas's best Western. It is a good film, but falls some way short of classic status. 7/10