Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Way West


We have a family connection to this film. It is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and concerns a wagon train heading out on the Oregon Trail back in 1843, when it was hardly a trail at all. The connection is that Lee’s family came out on the Trail in 1854! That was five years before statehood! Isn’t that amazing? By then it was a lot more defined, almost an actual road in some places, but to travel it in a covered wagon? That was never easy.

It’s a big picture, and doesn’t always indulge in the familiar western tropes. Such as, the Indians are not portrayed as marauders but as reasonable people who demand justice when a small boy is murdered by one of the wagon train members. (Though they are clearly mostly white men in red paint.) And the whites respond by hanging the killer. It’s not a popular decision, but the hard-driving leader of the train, Kirk Douglas, is able to enforce his will. It is a trio of aging stars, with Robert Mitchum as a rather subdued wilderness guide and Richard Widmark playing against character as a good guy, for once. It is also notable for being the first speaking part for Sally Field, who is a rather randy teenager.

It’s nice to look at, though the geography is a bit suspect, to say the least. For instance, one of the most amazing scenes is when the wagons are lowered down a steep cliff with ropes, block and tackle. They really did this, those insane pioneers. But when asked how far they are from the Willamette Valley, Mitchum says it’s only about thirty miles. Which is ridiculous, as the location is the Crooked River Gorge, and it’s actually about 180 very tough miles away from Oregon City, the official end of the Trail. And there’s nothing remotely like that canyon anywhere near Oregon City. But it’s a minor gripe. The various landscapes they roll through are analogous to the real sort of terrain the trains crossed, just not necessarily in the order we see them. The movie was actually filmed almost entirely in Oregon.