Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:
THE VIRGINIAN. Paramount, 1946. Joel McCrea, Brian Donlevy, Sonny Tufts, Barbara Britton, Fay Bainter, Tom Tully. Based on the novel by Owen Wister. Director: Stuart Gilmore.
The Virginian has many of the elements one would expect to find in a solid Western that, all things considered, stands the test of time. This postwar film adaptation of Owen Wister’s 1904 iconic tale of the Old West has romance, a dastardly villain, cattle rustling, a genteel New England woman adapting to life on the frontier, and a friendship strained by one man’s poor decisions.
Directed by Stuart Gilmore, who is perhaps better known by cineastes for his editing work, The Virginian stars Joel McCrea in one of his earlier Western features. He portrays a man simply known as “The Virginian,” a Wyoming cowhand originally from the Old Dominion who is making a new life for himself out West. He’s playful and stoic, laconic and willing to speak his mind. The Virginian isn’t a man of formal education, yet he has a solid grasp on the way of the world. And he knows the difference between right and wrong.
The plot isn’t particularly complex. But it doesn’t need to be. It’s 1885, and a Bennington, Vermont, schoolteacher by the name of Molly Wood (Barbara Britton) is restless. She simply doesn’t want to get married and stay put in that small New England town. So she decides to take a train to Wyoming, where she plans to work as a teacher.
Soon upon arriving out West, Molly encounters two cowhands, the overly enthusiastic Steve Andrews (Sonny Tufts) and The Virginian (McCrea). In a plot device not unusual for Westerns, the story’s primary male and female protagonists, Molly Wood and The Virginian, don’t exactly start their relationship off on the best foot. But it’s the palpable tension between the characters that allows the story to move forward.
The Virginian is also a story about friendship in a society where law and order have yet to be firmly established. The Virginian and Steve Andrews have seemingly known each other for a long time. They have worked and gone drinking together. When Steve falls in with a cattle rustler named Trampas (a well cast Brian Donlevy), the two men’s friendship comes under great strain. The Virginian may be a bit of a prankster, but he won’t abide cattle rustling.
The Virginian repeatedly warns Steve against allying himself with the devious Trampas, but his protests are repeatedly ignored. It’s a fatal mistake for Steve, whose hanging at the hands of The Virginian, although it occurs off screen, is nevertheless poignant. There’s a beautifully sad bird song that accompanies the hanging. It’s a truly haunting moment.
Although The Virginian doesn’t have much in the way of particularly unique cinematography, it does make very good use of color to convey meaning. Early on in the film, Molly sports a bonnet with lavender feathers on top. These blend seamlessly with the couches and curtains of a saloon front room, demonstrating that she fits in more with the domestic, more sedate part of the saloon, than with the rowdy bar area.
There’s also a scene in which the conflict between The Virginian and Steve is foreshadowed. Both men are standing at the bar, drinks in hand. They are discussing Steve’s plan to get to New York City and to leave the cowhand life behind him. The Virginian bets his friend that he’ll never make it to the Eastern metropolis. In the background during this whole scene, although visible only briefly at the beginning, is a decanter of an unknown bright red liquid. It’s noticeably out of place, even at a bar. The symbolism is clear. There will be blood between these two friends.
Trampas is also a study in color. He has a dark heart and he wears it on his sleeve. Literally. He’s one color from head to toe, including a black hat and a black gun belt. The contrast between The Virginian and Trampas is best seen in the famous scene in which The Virginian presses his gun into Trampas’s gut and says, “When you call me that, smile.” In every way, The Virginian is of a lighter hue than the villainous cattle thief.
In conclusion, The Virginian, even if not worthy of critical acclaim, remains worth a look. In some ways, it’s a somewhat mature Western for its time. There are no goofy sidekicks or saloon girls. It’s as much a study of human nature as it is a frontier tale. Best of all, McCrea demonstrates that he is a natural in the saddle. No wonder why his career flourished as he went on to make so many fine Westerns.