The second-best Virginian
The Virginian has been central to the myth of the West and was an early milestone on the road to the development of the whole Western genre. Owen Wister’s seminal novel came out in 1902, the year before what most people regard as the first Western movie. The first film treatment of The Virginian, a silent obviously, was not long delayed; it came out in 1914, was an early Cecil B DeMille effort and starred Dustin Farnum as the Virginian, Jack W Johnston as Steve and William Elmer as Trampas. Another silent movie version, longer and more sophisticated, and now available on DVD, was made in 1923, and starred matinée idol Kenneth Harlan as the Virginian, Pat O’Malley as Steve and Russell Simpson, no less, as Trampas.
Then came the talkies. In 1929 the greatest Virginian of them all was Gary Cooper and the Victor Fleming-directed film for Paramount (I have an old VHS but as far as I know it has not been released on DVD – a scandal) with Richard Arlen as Steve and Walter Huston as Trampas has never been equaled.
Paramount remade The Virginian after the Second War in 1946, in color, with Joel McCrea as the Virginian (he was good but no Coop), Sonny Tufts as Steve and a miscast Brian Donlevy as Trampas. It was alright but no more.
TV took up the baton in the 1960s but the series The Virginian, which began in 1962, bore little or no resemblance to the book or earlier films. The characters bore some of the same names but that was all. Recently there was a Canadian TV movie but it was very weak. By far the best TV treatment, and in fact the best film version overall bar the 1929 one, was Bill Pullman’s effort screened by TNT in 2000.
I say “Bill Pullman’s effort” because Mr. Pullman not only starred as the Virginian, he also directed and co-produced the movie.
Pullman was supported by a good cast: Harris Yulin (the corrupt Wyatt Earp from Doc) is the judge, infinitely more convincing than Ron Perlman in the 2014 Canadian one; Mr. Perlman might have been OK as Clay in Sons of Anarchy or Sanchez in the TV The Magnificent Seven but he was a hopeless Judge Henry. Mr. Yulin gives us a believably tough 1880s Wyoming rancher, ready to turn a blind eye but basically on the side of the angels. The Pullman film elevates Sam Balaam from the novel's minor character beaten by the Virginian for equine abuse into the antagonist, the chief rival rancher of the judge, and a very bad egg indeed. He is well played by Dennis Weaver, who gives us snarls, bully-boy tactics and cowardice aplenty.
The Molly is Diane Lane, well-known to 1980s and 90s Westernistas for her Little Britches in the 1981 Burt Lancaster movie, her Lorena in Lonesome Dove (the 1989 mini-series and the longer TV series) and her Susannah Moore (supposedly Jack McCall’s mother and Wild Bill’s lover) in Wild Bill in 1995. She’s OK as Molly Stark (the Wood seems to have been dropped) but of course it’s fundamentally a weak part and in the book she comes across as plain silly.
I liked John Savage as Steve. He had been Bittercreek Newcomb in Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Loney in the 1972 Jeff Bridges Western Bad Company and Slater in another Wyoming Western, HBO’s 1999 The Jack Bull. His Steve is like the one in the book, a basically decent fellow won over to the dark side by the bad guys.
Colm Feore is Trampas, surprisingly bland, I thought, though it may have been the writing (Larry Gross, who worked on Wild Bill and Geronimo: An American Legend, wrote up the screenplay from the Wister novel). Mr. Feore had a cameo General Sherman in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, was film maker DW Griffith in And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (also for HBO) and, later, did the Canadian independent movie Six Reasons Why, which really wasn’t very good. His Western CV isn’t that strong, though of course it’s difficult for any Western actor to have a strong Western CV these days, they make so few, so it’s hardly his fault.
One of the best features is the great Gary Farmer (Nobody in Dead Man) as fat cowpoke Buster, who drives the hack that gets into difficulty crossing the river so that the Virginian can save Molly. And, for Virginian aficionados and as a little in-joke, James Drury has a small part bringing the Virginian the insulting challenge from Trampas just before the dénouement. So all in all the cast is rather good.
This version is darker than any of the others. There is somber music under it, often a string quartet or trio, there are no comic-relief episodes (this is one of the few treatments not to include the baby-swapping scene) and the lighting and wintry Alberta scenery combine to create an atmosphere of menace. It’s well done by Mr. Pullman.
Yes, it looks like a made-for-TV movie. It’s something to do with the film stock, I’m not sure, and of course the regular fades-to-black to allow commercial breaks. But Lonesome Dove and later TV efforts like Deadwood have showed how good TV Westerns can be and paradoxically, these days they seem to have bigger budgets than Hollywood big-screen efforts.
The lynching is done in a barn and reminds me of that photograph of Killing Jim Miller and accomplices. Perhaps it was deliberate.
Pullman in his wedding coat looks ever so slightly like Gary Cooper. Praise indeed.
This Virginian is definitely worth a watch – as I said above, the best of them all apart from the 1929 talkie. Of course it makes significant changes from the plot in the book but which version doesn’t? And anyway, the book had some weaknesses.