Directed by Thomas Makowski
A ranch enforcer begins to question his defense of the “Code of the West” while unraveling the mystery behind a series of cattle rustlings in the area.
This movie is one of us numerous adaptions of the book of the same name. There have been multiple film adaptions as well as a long running TV show and even a stage show. The book is considered by many (with some debate) to be the first true Western novel outside of the dime store tradition.
I did a little reading after learning by accident that this film was not just a take a take on the 1962 to 1971 series or even some variation of one of the preceding film adaptions. One thing that jumped out at me here was that this film incorporated the bulk of the book’s major characters and at the minimum aimed to get the characterizations close to those of the book from what I can see. I will not comment on specific differences between the source and the film since I had never heard of the book until now.
This version of The Virginian is pretty good. In structure and tone it is very old-school in its approach to the Western genre. This is no revisionist Western film. They do not try to undo the mythology of the Old West or just make everyone involved some shade of terrible. Our hero is an honorable man and those he keeps close are the same even if they fall short of being good people. They, like him, have a code by which they live.
These are good people in a rough setting during difficult times just trying to live. Too often in these days the characters are ridiculously flawed and those flaws contribute to the problem. The hero, flawed themselves, comes along and disrupts the plans of the significantly more flawed baddie. While the Virginian in this film is not a saint, he is not a ridiculous sinner either. And that is a good thing.
Trace Adkins is surprisingly good as the titular character usually referred to in the story as South or the Virginian (and once referred to as “Jeff” by his friend Steve who is played by Canadian actor John Novak). Adkins is a very good Western tough guy and if they were turning out this genre in the manner they once did with the quality that they once did I think he could own the genre. Alas those days are long gone, and everybody wants big budget science fiction and superhero stuff. Adkins is tall and silent and imposing in the film with moments of actual character toughness sprinkled sparingly throughout.
The Virginian’s central nemesis (at least that he believes) during the course of the film is a man referred to only as Trampas (Steve Bacic). I first remember encountering Bacic in Andromeda and Stargate SG1 though his performance in SG1 as a fallen Goa’uld System Lord left much more of an impression. He channels the same smarmy jerk vibe here as he did then.
The Virginian begins when a young writer arrives in town. He is a guest of local cattleman Judge Henry (Ron Perlman). The character’s name is Owen Walton (Brendan Penny) and that sounds very similar to Owen Wister who is the author of the book upon which this is based. Perhaps an homage to the gentleman? Possibly. Prior to writing the book, the author Owen Wister did head out West to work as a ranch hand to gain firsthand knowledge in much the same way as the Owen Walton character did.
The Owen Walton character is a bit stiff. The delivery of lines by Brendan Penny are a bit flat and monotone. I am not sure if that was the direction he was given or that it is completely because of the actor. The character of Owen Walton is there to be an outside observer and to react so this does not too negatively affect things. He is important to the story but not necessarily front and center.
The character of Judge Henry is no actual judge. He is just a powerful local individual that is able to apply his will to those in the area and often passes judgement on local criminals regardless of what the law says. He is the real power in the region. Judge Henry took in the Virginian when he was young after the death of his father. As the story progresses the Virginian’s view of Judge Henry begins to change.
The set up with the romance with the schoolteacher Molly West (Victoria Pratt) is a little awkward. You can almost see the lead up to her arrival as South trying to get a schoolteacher in the town so he has somebody to date. But once you get past that part in the film how it is handled very old school in comparison to newer westerns or just films in general. I had forgotten that Pratt and Adkins are married in real life. That chemistry translates very nicely to their characters.
The Virginian starts out as a simple enough story involving cattle rustlers but becomes a bit of a mystery when South discovers a journal written in a cypher and decides he must figure it out. Along the way he must also confront the code by which he lives and quite possibly need to change all the while romancing the local teacher whom he is drawn to but feels he is not worthy of.
The film is on the lower budget side but still looks pretty good though. The only issue I draw is at the very end when South is confronting Trampas who he has been after for so long and Sheriff Broyles (George Canyon) is shot and falls to the ground. You see tan/yellow surrounded by black on the soles of his shoes. Those are obviously very modern pieces of footwear. And that moment took me out of the narrative. I had to watch the rest of that scene looking for those shoes to pop up again. Other than that not bad.
The Virginian is a good and entertaining film. It is not the greatest Western ever, but it is an entertaining one. Watch it!