Burning an Old Trail
"The Way West" on paper should be a great western, director Andrew V. McLaglen knew his way around the genre and the prospect of Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark and Robert Mitchum sharing the screen is an appetising one. But unfortunately the outcome is not so much bad but rather ordinary and it comes from the fact that "The Way West" is too familiar. There were plenty of wagon trail movies which preceded "The Way West" and what the movie offers is no different to what had been done before, it almost seems like a desperate bid too try and make one more big western before the popularity of the genre completely vanished but it doesn't come off with the sum of all the parts not working together.
In the year 1843 Senator William J. Tadlock (Kirk Douglas - The Heroes of Telemark) recruits enough people too form a wagon train and head for Oregon, a journey never been done before. But Tadlock is a tough master and as the leader expects everyone to do what he tells them which doesn't sit comfortably with either Lije Evans (Richard Widmark - Alvarez Kelly) or Dick Summers (Robert Mitchum - El Dorado) a guide with failing eye sight. But the journey is not a smooth one as not only do they have rough unforgiving terrain to cover and deal with Indians but Tadlock's dictatorial ways leads to unrest amongst the travellers.
Now you can sum up "The Way West" by saying that it is a typical wagon trail movie where we watch a lot of familiar elements from a troubled river crossing to trouble with Indians. There is plenty which is routine about this and sadly it is too routine, feeling too familiar as if all we have is a newer version of stuff you will have seen before. And whilst director Andrew V. McLaglen does a competent job of delivering all of this routine drama he never manages to make it feel different to something you will have seen in say a John Ford western.
But the thing is that in the midst of "The Way West" we do have other stories, we have the issues over cruel task master Tadlock who couldn't care who he hurts or kills as long as he is winning. We also have a romantic storyline as a troubled marriage leads to adultery, death and a tough decision for a young man over the woman he loves. The irony is that these elements should really dominate the movie and in fairness they are constant through out but they don't dominate it, instead the routine trail drama stuff dominates it and is why it ends up ordinary.
What is also disappointing is that for a movie which features Douglas, Widmark and Mitchum their performances end up forgettable. Part of the trouble is that their characters are too typical, Mitchum as Dick Summers is laid back, Widmark as Lije is a proud family man whilst Douglas as Tadlock is harsh and dictatorial, you feel like you've seen them do it all before. But what is worse is that they feel too separate, they share scenes but not nearly enough and there is no real spark between them. In the end you remember "The Way West" because of Sally Field, not only does she make her movie debut but as the flirtatious, pretty and mischievous Mercy McBee she steals many a scene.
What this all boils down to is that "The Way West" sounds like it should be an epic western with an impressive cast and director. But unfortunately the outcome is an ordinary and familiar one which does little which feels different to what you will have seen in countless other westerns. Its best bit is that it features Sally Field in a scene stealing role.