A. B. GUTHRIE, JR. – These Thousand Hills. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1956. Pocket/Cardinal C-267, paperback, 1957. Bantam, paperback, 1976, 1982.

THESE THOUSAND HILLS. Fox, 1959. Don Murray, Lee Remick, Richard Egan, Patricia Owens, Stuart Whitman, Albert Dekker. Screenplay by Alfred Hayes, based on the book by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Directed by Richard Fleischer.

   The novels of A. B. Guthrie are intimate epics, encompassing a broad sweep of history and geography over the course of years, yet never losing the personal focus of characters who grow (and sometimes diminish) into complex individuals, at once larger than life and all too human.

    Perhaps that’s why they’ve never been successfully adapted to the screen — Oh, I’m not saying there haven’t been some good movies made from them, but none ever captured the sense of progress and loss so essential to Guthrie’s style, and These Thousand Hills shows why.

   As the story opens, Albert “Lat” Evans is a farm boy with ambitions who joins a cattle drive to Montana and becomes a cowboy with ambitions. After the drive he convinces his wastrel friend Tom Ping to spend the winter hunting wolf hides (a harrowing profession as Guthrie describes, not to be confused with hunting wolves) which leads to their capture and eventual release by a tribe of nomadic semi-outlaw Indians –an episode that will come to define Lat’s future.

   Guthrie does an intelligent and strikingly original job of detailing Lat’s rise to prosperity and fame, distinctive enough to be worth mentioning. Most stories about the rise of the rich become Faustian parables of compromise and corruption, but Lat simply realizes that if he wants to get anyplace, he’ll have to estrange himself from his loyal but disreputable companions. He’s honest, even generous with everyone he deals with, but as Hills draws to a close, and his old friends come to the bad end that was always waiting for them, he realizes that the people he owes the most to won’t even turn to him when they need his help.

   It’s a delicate point to make dramatically, and Guthrie handles it splendidly, as Lat and his old buddy meet one final time in a saloon, both armed, and These Thousand Hills seems headed for Tragedy… but turns to Drama of a very high sort, and one I won’t forget.

   Well, when they made a film of this, they felt like they had to ditch the Delicate and keep the Drama, and they didn’t do a bad job of it. The film doesn’t measure up to the book by a long ways, but it ain’t bad at all. Don Murray plays Lat with just the right amount of strength and naiveté, Stuart Whitman as his ex-pardner gone bad projects the right mix of strength and instability, and Lee Remick is simply splendid as the vulnerable prostitute who loves him.

   In lesser parts, Richard Egan and Albert Dekker portray opposite sides of an unflinching moral code, and we even get some fine turns from Old Western stalwarts like Royal Dano, Fuzzy Knight and Douglas Fowley.

   Director Richard Fleischer handles all this quite capably, and if he and writer Alfred Hayes fumble the whole point of the thing…. Well they made a decent movie out of it anyway, and one that’s worth your time. But take a look at the book if you can.