The most recent screen The Virginian, and the worst
It is inevitable that any great Western story will be remade in different versions as time goes on. That’s perfectly legitimate, just as new versions of Shakespeare’s plays or Verdi’s operas are often staged. We have a right to rethink these works, reinterpret them, perform them in modern dress and so on, especially if by doing so the works say something new or important for the current age. I’m not sure, though, that it is acceptable to rework a classic piece (and The Virginian is indeed a classic piece for Western lovers) to the point where the endings change, the book’s heroes become the villains and, worse, the film is not true to the spirit of the book.
We’ve been looking recently on this blog at Owen Wister’s hugely successful 1902 novel The Virginian, and at the different big- and small-screen adaptations, the 1914 and 1923 silent ones, the 1929 talkie with Gary Cooper (still the best), the 1946 color one with Joel McCrea and the made-for-TV effort by Bill Pullman in 2000. Go back to the home page and list of posts to read those. Today we shall look at the most recent and, to date, last movie version, that was made by a Canadian outfit in 2014. That will conclude our discussion of The Virginian, you will doubtless be mightily relieved to hear.
The 2014 video one was directed by Thomas Makowski and written by Bob Thielke. I don’t know anything about these people. It stars an American, the country singer Trace Adkins, as the Virginian. He was in the 2012 video Western Wyatt Earp’s Revenge. He’s from Louisiana and has some southern credentials, I guess, but he looks odd in his long hair and rather, ahem, imposing figure. To me he looks like a biker. We always imagine the Virginian as tall and rangy, skinny even, but I suppose that’s the Gary Cooper Virginian talking. Trace has a growly voice and tries to be a tough Westerner. He’s OK, I guess.
The Trampas is a Canadian in his only Western, Steve Bacic. He is a one-dimensional snarling villain, almost comically so, but this may not be Mr. Bacic’s fault: the part he has is poorly written.
The Molly is Victoria Pratt, a Canadian. She seems to have been in a lot of things but she looks far too ‘now’ to be convincing as a schoolma’am in late 19th century Wyoming and her diction is, too. She takes part in the silly ending by emulating Grace Kelly in High Noon. That’s quite an interesting reference, I suppose, given the similarities between the plots of The Virginian and High Noon.
Someone named John Novak is Steve and is duly lynched, after writing a very long letter instead of the brief note scrawled on a newspaper. First he is shot and captured by Owen. The narrator is named Owen Walton – not Wister – and is played by Brendan Perry.) He is a leading actor, shooting people, being shot and so forth. He buries his book in a grave at the end, in an odd scene, so perhaps we are supposed to imagine that The Virginian by Owen Wister was not the true version of the story.
Judge Henry (the highest profile actor, Ron Perlman, Josiah Sanchez in The Magnificent Seven TV series) is an evil big rancher trying to stamp out the small homesteaders and is the main bad guy.
All the actors are obviously wearing costumes. No one seems convincing in the clothes of the period concerned.
Some of the locations are pretty. It was shot in British Columbia by Malaysian C Kim Miles, his only Western.
There’s a crooked lawman, Sheriff Broyles (George Canyon) who is duly dispatched (by Owen).
The Virginian dislikes being called that. He is given a real name, Jefferson Fuller, but most people call him South.
In the famous saloon scene Trampas calls the Virginian “bastard” rather than a son of anything and it doesn’t sound right at all.
But the worst thing really is that the Virginian abandons the ‘code’ of the West, telling Owen that it was only there “to protect the Judge Henrys of the world”. He repents of hanging Steve (“He needed help and I killed him”) and adds “I hate Wyoming”. Judge Henry pays Trampas to kill the Virginian.
I just don’t know what was gained by all this monkeying with the plot and the spirit of the book. Not much, I fear, for the film really isn’t very good.
As a poorly done Western, this is best avoided. Lovers of the book or previous screen versions should definitely steer well clear of it.