Background photo of the beach at Whale Cove was made by Bryce Buchanan in 2004. (Via WikiMedia Commons, cc/by/SA)
Audio version: Download MP3 or use controls below:
The reviews were, in fact, pretty bleak.
“It's all very promising material, but Hecht and … McLaglen bury it in a panorama of scenery and stock Western clichés,” wrote Roger Ebert, whose two-and-a-half-star review was probably the gentlest one of the lot.
The main issue for most critics was that the film tries to tell too many stories. The plot of the movie is, basically, a wagon train full of flawed characters of various types making their way across the country, experiencing lots of interpersonal dramas and physical hardships along the way. It’s hard for viewers to emotionally invest in all of them at the same time, and the film doesn’t make a particularly strong case for why they should; and the tendency among critics watching it for the first time seems to have been to shrug their shoulders, look at their watches and count down the minutes until they could be back at the office writing a scathing takedown, possibly including the words “worst,” “Western,” “movie” and “ever.”
Of course, once the first few of these critical reviews came out, the general negativity started to influence others, in a classic “information cascade.” Today, in the cold light of history many years later, the movie holds up pretty well. In 1967, in the hot blood of the moment, with the sheer momentum of the bad press feeding back into the coverage to influence more bad press, well … United Artists was in for a bumpy ride.
AT THE END OF May, the Eugene Jaycees were gamely trying to put the best face they could on the “world premiere” debacle.
“What we’ve got is a Pacific Northwest premiere, call it what you want to — but we have the first showing in this area,” Jaycees spokesman Jim Cisler told reporters.
But United Artists was not making things any easier for its erstwhile partners. In a press conference, studio representative Murry Lafayette emphatically declared that he was “in no way, shape or manner prepared to make a statement” on the subject of the press conference he’d called, and added, less than helpfully, “As far as I’m concerned, the less I know about it, the better I feel.”
He did, however, mention that Michael Witney, one of the supporting-role actors in the flick (he played the philandering newlywed Johnny Mack), would be there; and the three male leads would be “represented” by Troy Donahue — who wasn’t actually in the movie at all. (Troy, as our younger readers may not recall, was a tall, handsome blond actor who had been one of the hottest sex symbols in the business about 10 years before this, but whose career had cooled considerably as a result of an ill-considered feud with studio mogul Jack Warner.)
Lafayette said producer Harold Hecht would be there, though — “which,” the reporter adds, “may be considered an act of bravery. Critics who have seen the film thus far have universally panned it.”
Bravery, or … or not. As the days passed, the brutality of the criticism of the movie mounted to the point that the United Artists people simply canceled the “premiere,” leaving the Jaycees holding the bag, and slunk back to Hollywood to hide under their desks.