WILBUR DANIEL STEELE – The Way to the Gold. Doubleday, hardcover, 1955. No paperback edition.

THE WAY TO THE GOLD. 20th Century Fox, 1957. Jeffrey Hunter, Sheree North, Barry Sullivan, Walter Brennan, Neville Brand, Jacques Aubuchon, Ruth Donnelly. Based on the novel by Wilbur Daniel Steele. Director: Robert D. Webb.


   Buried somewhere deep inside the three hundred and seventy-five pages of Wilbur Daniel Steele’s The Way to the Gold, there’s a taut adventure tale screaming to get out, and it’s just too bad it didn’t make it, poor thing.

   The story starts out like a Gold Medal Original, with Joe Mundy, a young loner embittered beyond his years, jailed for a killing he never done. Joe’s cell mate turns out to be legendary outlaw Ned Glaze, the last of the old-time train robbers, who still holds secret the hiding place of his last haul, a hundred thousand in gold taken in a heist that cost the lives of his partners.

   And over the course of about a hundred pages we get to where we knew we were going all along: Joe is a free man, out of jail and on his way to the gold.

   Things, of course, just ain’t that simple. Joe’s passport to the small town where the loot is stashed turns out to be a genial, cherubic and very mysterious character named Hannibal, and Joe very quickly finds himself parked in a boarding house populated with surviving relatives of Ned Glaze’s old gang, who seem to think they have a claim on the money. There’s also a hard-boiled waitress with a soft spot for embittered loners and a tough-but-friendly cop who’s clearly got cards he ain’t showing.

   Steele takes these promising characters, and over the course of the next hundred-and-some pages, does nothing very much with them as Joe and the story get swallowed up in the trivia of getting along in a small town. And I mean “trivia”. And I mean “swallowed” as The Way to the Gold seems to lose its way somewhere in a novel of suburban life in the mid-50s.

   By the time we actually get on our way to the gold, a couple hundred more pages have grunted their way past in constipated movement — at which point we get to where I suspected we were headed all along, and if you didn’t see it coming a long ways back, you just wasn’t looking.


   Two years later, Twentieth Century Fox turned this into nothing more than a run-of-the-mill movie with a low-voltage cast, but they did rather well by it. Direction was entrusted to Robert D. Webb, whose films were never all that memorable, but the writing chores were handed to one Wendell Mayes, a writer whose name should be better known.

   Mayes was responsible for blockbusters like The Poseidon Adventure and The Spirit of St. Louis, but he also brought in smaller, quirkier efforts like The Hanging Tree and From Hell to Texas in fine form.

   Here he trims away the fat and returns the story to Gold Medal Original country, where it really always belonged. Gone is the minutia of small town life and endless domestic complications, replaced by a tight, fast-moving narrative that still takes time to appreciate the characters.


   Jeffrey Hunter comes off well as bitter, untrusting Joe Mundy, played off against Sheree North in full Kim-Novak-mode as the hard-boiled waitress. Barry Sullivan shows off his type-cast toughness as a local lawman who seems too smart to be hanging around this one-whore town, but pride of place must go to the family of dim-wit bad guys, winnowed down to four by writer Mayes, and perfectly realized by Walter Brennan as a senile old crackpot, Ruth Donnelly as a matriarch in the Lady Macbeth mode, Neville Brand as the brawn of the outfit, and especially Jacques Aubuchon, a busy actor you never heard of, absolutely perfect as the totally inadequate “brains” of the gang.

   Given Maye’s ability to impart fast touches of character, and director Webb’s gift for getting out of the way, this cast runs quite capably with a story that really moves, somehow giving the impression that there are real people involved in this paperback plot and bringing things to a fast, satisfying conclusion. The Way to the Gold turns out as a fun thing to watch and a film much much better than its source.