Revisions: Four Faces West

Revisions:   Four Faces West,  based on Pasó Por Aquí by Eugene Manlove Rhodes

Ray Olson and Thomas Fleming

I had intended to begin the discussion almost a week ago, but the film arrived late and I wanted to show it to our friend Mark Kennedy, who does not even possess the primitive television set I have for watching films. 

Ray Olson

A variant of the brilliant western short novel, Paso por aqui, by Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Four Faces West retains the characters' names and approximate roles but sets up a new set of relationships. Ross McEwan (Joel McCrae) and Jay (in the movie, Fay) Hollister (Frances Dee) are manipulated into a romantic relationship, as they are not in Rhodes' story. The character of Monte (Joseph Calleia), the Mexican gambler, is greatly expanded into an exceptionally positive and powerful Latino character for the film's time (1948). Yes, Rhodes' story would make a still more powerful and meaningful film if it had been filmed utterly faithfully, but this altering of his story is faithful to his statement about moral character being more important than strict observance of the law. Old pro Alfred E, Green directs with silents-style craftsmanship, framing every take beautifully and moving the camera only very conservatively (as it must be, given Green's conservative approach, the editing's impeccable). The performances could for the most part hardly be improved upon--they could be, but aren't, much more histrionic. This is one great western --and an even greater one remains to be made by filming Rhodes' story straight

Brandon Taylor responded to my original notice:

Thank you for the recommendation, Dr. Fleming. I greatly enjoyed both the film and the book.

I would be interested in hearing any insights you might have to share about the differences between the film and ‘Paso Por Aqui’ (particularly the different approaches taken with the respective endings).

Ray Olson answered:

“In addition to the comments I’ve already sent, I want to respond to Mr, Taylor. Although I haven’t watched Four Faces West again since the comments I sent were written in 2012, I have just reread Paso por aqui. The beginning and ending of the story are indeed very different, bespeaking a more expansive view of the human condition than the movie version affords. The hero, Ross McEwen, seems to have robbed the bank for the hell of it, not, as in the film, to pay off a debt. In the story, he leaves no IOU, and that because he never intended to keep the money or use it. He scatters it to wind before his pursuers, who duly collect it all. Yet they continue or, rather, remount their hunt for him. He’s broken the law, after all. When they finally apprehend him, he is, of course, debilitated from nursing the stricken farm family and easy to take in. Instead, sheriff Pat Garrett lets him go with the counsel to steer clear of the area henceforth. Garrett seems to understand that McEwen was bidding his wild youth farewell with a gesture in keeping with his vast capabilities. McEwen’s an exceedingly handy guy, ready to respond appropriately to the crises that will face him as a fully adult man. So Rhodes’s story is a coming-of-age drama, if you will, concerned not, as are most present-day coming-of-age tales, with dawning sexual awareness, but with the decision to put away irresponsibility and take up the duties of a man. What he has done for old Florencio’s family indicates that he is ready to make this change.”

Thomas Fleming

Ray added an additional note that the change might be due in part to the age of the actors.  Joel McCrea was no raw kid when he made this film but a mature man of 43, and his wife Francis Dee, though she is still quite beautiful, was closing in on 40.  They were among the rarest couples in Hollywood.   They met while filming The Silver Cord in 1933 and lived together on their ranch for 57 years until McCrae died.  When I discovered this strange relationship—strange for Hollywood—I mentioned, to a rather senior friend at church, Joe Fallon, a wounded World War II veteran who died only recently, that Joel McCrea had stayed married to one woman for 57 years.  Joe quipped, “If you were married to Francis Dee, you wouldn’t think of leaving her, either.  Indeed!

In my memory, I have confused the two stories and read into the movie the opening scene of the novella, which I now cannot think of without seeing Joel McCrea.  What the two versions share is a moral seriousness that is not often encountered in movies.  In the film version, Ross has a partial justification for his crime—the imminent loss of his father’s ranch—and, despite signing the note for the loan with “Jefferson Davis”—he does intend to return the money, when he can.  Nonetheless, a crime is a crime.

The most interesting character in both book and film is Pat Garrett, a tough, hard, but wise old lawman.  Rhodes had not always thought very highly of Garrett.  As a young cowboy, he and some pals had ridden into some town in Lincoln County, NM (scene of the Lincoln Country War in which young Billy the Kid so distinguished himself).  They were drunk and shooting off guns, when Garrett told them to settle down.  Rhodes defied the sheriff only to find himself buffaloed and jailed.  He hated Pat Garrett for years but finding his own manhood—much as Ross finds his—he wrote his novella partly to do justice to the man.

I’ll postpone further remarks for a day or two, but I do want to get this belated discussion moving.  There is a fine history of Tularosa, NM, by C.L. “Doc” Sonnichsen, author of a masterful book on Texas blood-feuds, I’ll Die Before I’ll Run.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Brent McGuire says:

    What is the symbol on McEwen’s horse? Is it a chalice? Whatever it is, is there any significance?

  2. Vince Cornell says:

    Is it time for the discussion, yet? I finally found time to watch the movie and loved it. Can’t wait to show the kids!