The Virginian has one of the most long-lived story lines in the history of western film. How it has evolved over the years from its origins in Owen Wister's novel (1902) is a story unto itself. The first "literary" western, based on Wister's own visits to the West in the 1880s, it became a wildly popular bestseller, was quickly made into a successful stage play, and then five movies and a long-running TV series. A few basic elements of the plot have remained more or less intact over the years: the Virginian's courtship of Molly, the independent-minded schoolmarm from back East; the hanging of his best friend; the conflict with his nemesis Trampas; the shoot-out at sundown; and the famous line, "Smile when you call me that."
From the point of view of western history, the novel-long courtship of the schoolmarm is probably the most questionable. Complaining about the lack of accuracy in western fiction, cowman John Culley blamed The Virginian, recalling the following from his years on the open ranges of New Mexico:
I make bold to say that one of the principal causes of the falsity that pervades our western stories is this love business. For the truth is love played a very small part in our range life. Few cowboys married young. Many of us spent months and years far from “white” women of any kind. That is what made the average cowboy shy with the feminine sex, and what kept his respect, even reverence, for them constant (1940, p. 326).
An upper-class Scotsman by birth, he goes on to explain that there was a near universal prejudice against women of any other color – at least for romance – though he doesn’t go so far as to suggest that cowboys had no sex life at all.
Actually, Wister’s novel portrays his cowboys as averse to marriage. They display discomfort as the frontier begins to fill with families, and the all-male environment is being invaded with women and children. Their lack of regard for the nuclear family is reflected early on in the baby-switching scene, where the Virginian and another practical-joking cowboy at a large social gathering swap the baby clothes of a roomful of sleeping infants. Implausibly, the parents don’t discover the prank until after they’ve gone home with the wrong children.
Wister seems to have intended the story to be just that – an improbable courtship between his class-conscious schoolmarm and his unschooled cowboy. Both strong-willed and feeling superior to the other, they remain continually at odds. Love always threatens to conquer all, and the Virginian confidently tells Molly that it will, but new obstacles keep preventing that from happening.
She objects to his resorting to lynching horse thieves to enforce property rights on the frontier. Then she objects to his facing down his rival Trampas in a gun duel. Reflected in all this is the turn-of-the-century easterners’ disapproval of gun violence and lawlessness in the West. Wister’s loyalty, however, is to the cowboy, and after Molly finally agrees to marry the Virginian, the story doesn’t just end as they ride off into the sunset. He proves his worth by becoming a responsible breadwinner, solid citizen, and successful businessman.
Bill Pullman's remake of this story in 2000 is a lot closer to the original than the TV series, which played fast and loose with the material, but like every other version, it falls short of matching Wister's achievement. Pullman understands that the Virginian is a man of principle, honor, discretion, and remarkable patience. But his portrayal of these character traits makes him too stoic and flat. Wister's Virginian, still in his 20s, has a playful streak that gives him an irresistible, boyish charm. Pullman, unfortunately, is obviously twice that age, and without the youth of a younger actor he comes across as sometimes wooden.
Diane Lane's Molly is actually closer to Wister's conception of her character, and actresses from the beginning have had trouble conveying her spirited independence without seeming either shrill or stubbornly comical. Though Wister makes a point of saying that Molly is not a "New Woman" (i.e. early feminist), she comes across that way anyway - prepared to live her life as a single woman if need be, and free to marry whatever man she chooses, regardless of his social station.
In Wister's novel, there is an element of youthful willfulness to help account for her behavior. Diane Lane's portrayal of a woman somewhat past marrying age makes her independence plausible and even "modern." When she says she won't marry the Virginian if he kills Trampas, she means it, and unlike her predecessors, follows through on her promise. Pullman's Virginian has to go hat in hand to her and persuade her to reconsider. While Wister's ending has her retreating into helpless, all-forgiving love for her man, Pullman's Molly gets to hang on to her scruples about the ethics of gunning down another man in cold blood.
Thus the love story, improbable as cowman John Cully once found it, was reworked to suit modern sensibilities. And in that connection, a curious development in Pullman’s version of the story is the elevation of the character of Balaam, a neighboring rancher who mistreats horses in the novel and represents corresponding weaknesses of character. Here, played by Dennis Weaver, he becomes a second villain, whom the Virginian must deal with in the final shootout with Trampas.
For Pullman, Balaam isn't just a bad apple, but a representative of corporate greed. This is a modern development we see in other recent westerns - the crooked CEO of an agribusiness willing to stop at nothing to maximize profits (cf. Appaloosa and Open Range). This development extends the final confrontation scene, but is a major departure from Wister's novel.
Most agreeable about the film is its attempt to capture the open range of 1880s Wyoming. Shot in Canada, it portrays the sweeping beauty of the prairies, as well as the sense of isolation when people lived and worked so far from the nearest town or railroad. The music track in its haunting spareness is also very evocative, without the use of a large orchestra that was common in "big" westerns of the past. If you forget Wister and just watch the film as a low-keyed mix of frontier justice and love story, you shouldn't be disappointed, but treat yourself to the original sometime. Read The Virginian.