The Virginian’s ambitions aren’t that great. It wants to be a normal, everyday western like they used to make, in which man’s-gotta-do men negotiate morality in a lawless world, a baddie wore a black hat and a fair lady was open to a bit of courting as long as it was respectful.
Can such a western be made? Is there an audience for it?
The TV show The Virginian, which this isn’t, was one of several long-running series with high production values and fine actors. It ran for 249 shows over nine years, a way behind Bonanza (430 episodes between 1959 and 1973) and Gunsmoke (635 episodes between 1955 and 1975). Together, with the likes of Rawhide, The High Chaparral and The Big Country these shows went to town on the genre, working through all the permutations the western could offer and grinding out the last dregs of sympathy for it. By the time they were done, the western was dead.
Clint Eastwood kept going, a lone voice, but precisely the sort of movie that The Virginian is – modest in budget, and desiring only to tell a tale of the old west with no allegories or meta-statements or fancy claims of any sort – simply couldn’t get made any more. Since then, there’s been a revival in the fortunes of the western, of sorts, with films like 3:10 to Yuma, The Salvation, Slow West, The Proposition, Django Unchained, Bone Tomahawk, Meek’s Cutoff and First Cow, brilliant all, but they all had ambitions, often revisionist. The bog-standard oater really was toast (to really mix the metaphors).
Which brings us to the meat of The Virginian, based on Owen Wister’s novel The Virginian: Horseman of the Plains, which was praised for its authenticity when it was published in 1902 and led to a stampede of authors writing me-too versions of the same.
Director Thomas Makowski and writer Bob Thielke stick largely to the original book’s story – about the dealings between the Virginian (hooray) and Trampas (boo), the Virginian and the Judge, who sees him as his successor, and the Virginian and fair lady Molly, who he will woo if she’ll look his way. All this seen through the eyes of a fancy New York writer, Owen Walton (the echo with Wister is clear), who is getting an introduction to the Wyoming of the late 19th century.
It’s a cast full of people who have the right faces for the job. Country star Trace Adkins also has the voice as the Virginian, a big rumbling gravelly thing that appears to come from his boots. Steve Bacic plays Trampas as a scowling, belly-crawling no-good to the Virginian’s upright man’s man. Victoria Pratt plays Molly, a teacher, we’re told, though Pratt seems to have decided on a bit of saloon-gal swishiness. And, with an “And…” credit, Ron Perlman is the Judge – upstanding, four-square, rumbling back at Adkins whenever Adkins rumbles at him in the scenes they share, like two volcanoes facing off.
Brendan Penny plays Walton, the “tenderfoot” through whose eyes and ears we see this unfamiliar (is the idea) territory where justice and manners are rough and much needs patient explanation.
Except, obviously, it doesn’t. After thousands of movies and TV shows, Walton’s narrator figure – never named in the original book – is in the way in the 21st century and that final scene, as the Virginian and his fine lady Molly walk off into the sunset while Walton trots along awkwardly beside them actually admits as much.
There are other problems, like the piling on of Western cliché early on – a whipping, a near-hanging, a quick-draw shootout, a testy card game, rustlers, Indians – done breathlessly. It’s interesting in these opening scenes watching the actors attempting to put back in with their performances the air that poor pacing has sucked out.
After that… kind of nothing. A formless almost-story of one minor event after another, with the odd death-out-of-nowhere maybe meant to spice things up. Until it all comes to a close with straddle-legged guns-blazing shootout.
It’s not terrible, but it’s not terribly interesting either.
The Virginian – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023