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IT is hard to believe that anybody could have made such a hackneyed hash of that fine A. B. Guthrie Jr. novel, "The Way West," as Harold Hecht and Andrew V. McLaglen have in the Western movie of the title, which came to the Astor and other theaters yesterday.
Working with history and folklore that should have inspired a great film — it did in one called "The Covered Wagon," back to 1923 — they have hacked out a DeLuxe-colored fiction of a wagon-train trip to Oregon, which is so stagy and unrealistic that it makes an old Western fan want to scream.
Not only are the incidents of conflict among the foreground travelers in the train fashioned to the concepts and the patterns of television western serials, but they are directed by Mr. McLaglen and played by his brightly costumed cast in a style that almost brings into the picture the lights and cameras and all the stuff of artifice.
Kirk Douglas, high-minded and hammy, is the hard-driving leader of the train who stands on elevator-heels and delivers speeches about setting up a beautiful city in Oregon. Robert Mitchum, droopy-eyed and surly, as though peeved at having to wear that Indian hat, is the reluctant trail scout who views the whole silly business with contempt??? Richard Widmark, acrid and aggressive, is the hard-bitten pioneer who snarls and jabbers at Mr. Douglas at every periodic crisis in the trip.
Lola Albright is the youthful and flirtatious wife of Mr. Widmark and Michael McGreevey is his slightly imbecile, and therefore comical, 16-year-old son. Sally Field is a saucy, sexy youngster, who flings herself at the fellows with wanton zest, and there are a couple of dozen other folksy actors and Indians from Central Casting milling around.
What they have to go through to reach Oregon is nothing to compare to what an old Western fan has to go through to keep from getting up in the middle and walking out. he is the son of a musician who wants to avoid him, but that is all we know. And the young woman, sad and contemplative, is apparently French and evidently sings in a cafe, which is all we know of her. This studied vagueness injects a feeling of artiness and pose.
Likewise, the young man, John Tracy, tries too hard to ape the image of the late James Dean (who tried too hard to ape the image of Marlon Brando), for one to feel quite relaxed with him. He is too clearly calculated, too much of a cult stereotype.
But Sadja Marr is sensitive and brittle in a silent, moody way as the nostalgic young woman, and a little boy, Michael Fair, is genuine and lovely as her sun-browned, towheaded child. The beach at Montauk and the changes of weather along the sea are beautifully realized. They are injected for the values of poetry by the fine black-and-white camerawork of Steve Winsten and Mr. Matter's own feel for imagery. A first-rate musical score by Ken Lauber does a great deal to give this film the quality of emotional vibrance that is only implicit in its characters. ???grounds. At least the picture moves. Furthermore, the good tunes arrive thick and fast, and several numbers are festive and charming. El, now a personable actor with an ingratiating ease, at least has steered his movie career back on the track.
In contrast, there is Mr. McCallum, of television's "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," as the hero of "Three Bites of the Apple." He plays, or was meant to play, an incredibly naive and bumbling bus tour guide smitten with a wily adventuress, Sylva Koscina, while piloting his charges through Italy and Switzerland.
However, Mr. McCallum, for all his sprinting in "The Man From Uncle," is no actor at all and the script is equally flat and listless. The immediate and distant backgrounds are simply eye-popping, all of them drenched in beautiful color. But the picture only spurts to life with the brief, saucy appearances of Tammy Grimes, as an amorous spinster named Miss Sparrow. With an arched eyebrow, a stifled yawn (during Mr. McCallum's lectures, bless her) and one devastating wisecrack at the Roman Forum, the comedienne dominates her every scene.
If anybody ever makes a tasty movie about a busload of tourists, let's hope this delicious little lady, with her droll purr, is behind the wheel.
THE WAY WEST; screenplay by Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann, based on a novel by A. B. Guthri??? Jr.; directed by Andrew V. McLaglen; produced by Harold Hecht and released through United Artists. At the Astor Theater, Broadway and ???5th Street; the 86th Street East Theater, near Third Avenue; and other theaters. Running time: 122 minutes.
Senator William J. Tadlock . . . . . Kirk Douglas
Dick Summers . . . . . Robert Mitchum
Lije Evans . . . . . Richard Widmark
Rebecca Evans . . . . . Lola Albright
Johnn???e Mack . . . . . Michael Witney
Sam Fairman . . . . . Stubby Kaye
Mercy McBee . . . . . Sally Field
Amand??? Mack . . . . . Katherine Justice
Brownie Evans . . . . . Michael McGreevey