A.B. Guthrie Jr. was one of the more successful novelists of the mid-20th century, and authored a series of books that were turned into major motion pictures. Alfred Bertram Guthrie Jr. was born in Bedford, IN, in 1901, one of nine children, only three of whom survived childhood. The family moved to the stockman's town of Choteau, MT, before he was two years old. His father was a newspaper publisher, and as a young teenager he spent his summers working at his father's paper; it was there, if not already through his birth, that he discovered he had newsprint (and writing) in his blood. Guthrie attended the University of Washington from 1919-1920, and later transferred to the University of Montana, from which he graduated in 1923 with a degree in journalism. He also had a keen knowledge and appreciation for the land, derived not just from having been raised in Montana but also owing to summers spent working as a ranch hand and for the U.S. Forest Service.
Guthrie later moved to Kentucky, intrigued by what he'd heard of the Bluegrass State, and made his home there. Soon after, he began his journalistic career in Lexington, starting out at the Lexington Leader in 1926. Over the ensuing 17 years, he moved up from reporter to city editor to editorial writer, and then to executive editor, marrying and raising a family along the way. He began writing fiction in the early '40s, principally set in the far West and the Northwest. His work was characterized not only by an earthy, quirky humor -- sometimes with twists worthy of Ambrose Bierce -- but also by an unusually dignified and ironic portrait of Native Americans, in their interactions with whites. He published his first novel, Murders at Moon Dance, in 1943 (retitled Trouble at Moon Dance for its 1951 reissue), and the following year, he received a Neiman Fellowship for a year's study at Harvard University, during which he separated himself from the process of being a newsman and dealing with day-to-day events, and he became an author. This was the flashpoint in his serious career, resulting in the publication in 1947 of The Big Sky, an epic novel about the 1830 journey of a group of white frontiersmen and traders from St. Louis to the Northwest Territory and what later became Montana. The book became a bestseller but didn't immediately attract the attention of the Hollywood studios, owing to the sweep of its narrative, and its lack of a single heroic figure -- no one could figure out how to turn it into a traditional Hollywood movie.
Guthrie spent 1947-1952 as a professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky, and it was during this period that his reputation in Hollywood soared, an event triggered by the 1949 publication of The Way West, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. No less a figure than Gary Cooper purchased the rights to The Way West (though, ironically, Cooper never got to make a movie out of it). Meanwhile, Howard Hawks' Winchester Productions, then affiliated with RKO, snapped up the rights to The Big Sky for a reported 40,000 dollars. Hawks was planning on shooting it in 1950, with a screenplay written under his very close supervision by Dudley Nichols, but he was unable to settle on casting for the difficult roles of Jim Deakins and Boone Caudill. He was hoping to get Robert Mitchum for the former part and Marlon Brando for the latter, but Mitchum had other commitments and Brando wanted a then-astronomical-sounding 125,000 dollars, to which Hawks wouldn't agree. According to Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy, one actor whom the director had in place was James Arness for the part of Streak. Hawks was forced to delay production on the movie until 1951, owing to the unavailability of Mitchum and the inherent problems with shooting in Montana any later than September, and in the interim he made The Thing (From Another World) (with Arness in the title-role).
Hawks got back to The Big Sky in 1952, settling for Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin as Deakins and Caudill, while putting Arthur Hunnicutt -- usually a character actor -- into the starring part of Uncle Zeb. James Davis, later better known as Jim Davis, ended up playing Streak, while Hawks' romantic interest of a couple of years past, professional model Elizabeth Threatt, played the female lead. His solution to the problem of turning The Big Sky into a traditional Hollywood movie was to not make a traditional Hollywood movie out of it -- instead, the "star" of the movie was the landscape and the expedition along the Missouri River to the Northwest, with Kirk Douglas, Dewey Martin, et al. along for the ride, and Hunnicutt's Uncle Zeb actually more central to the action than the two more famous stars' characters for much of the story. The resulting movie ended up with a history somewhat similar to that of Hawks' earlier Red River, running far over budget and going through several rounds of editing. It was released at 138 minutes and then at 122 minutes, and became a surprising critical success. It was a box-office failure, however, its unconventional story and structure leaving mass audiences cold. In Europe, though, its vision of America and the men and women who settled the West proved extremely compelling, and the movie has since come to be regarded as a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling in France.
Guthrie's direct contact with Hollywood took place in 1951, while Hawks was adapting The Big Sky, when Guthrie was contracted to write the screenplay for George Stevens' Shane, based on the book by Jack Schaefer. Shane, which by coincidence was shot at the same time and in locations adjoining the location shoot of The Big Sky, became the kind of megahit that Hawks' movie wasn't, and not only became the defining film of Alan Ladd's career but an enduring classic in general terms, its characters, settings, and motifs so familiar that it could be successfully parodied 13 years later in an episode of Batman. (With Cliff Robertson playing a gunslinger/villain named "Shame," the episode featured a young boy chasing after him calling "Shame! Come back Shame!") The movie was praised, among its many virtues, for its vivid and historically accurate setting and characters. A year after that, Guthrie was engaged by Hecht-Lancaster Productions to write the screen adaptation of Felix Holt's novel The Gabriel Horn, which became The Kentuckian, directed by and starring Burt Lancaster. The resulting film was admired by critics for the care that Guthrie and Lancaster took with the history and the vivid details of the setting. By that time, Guthrie's books were snatched up by Hollywood as soon as the galleys were ready. 20th Century Fox grabbed These Thousand Hills (1957), which was filmed the following year by Richard Fleischer, with Richard Egan, Stuart Whitman, and Lee Remick.
Guthrie's biggest novel, The Way West, which went through decades of reprints, didn't reach the screen until 1967, when Harold Hecht and United Artists, along with director Andrew V. McLaglen, filmed it. That movie, ironically enough, was a notorious failure despite the presence of Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, and Richard Widmark (all major box-office names at the time) in leading roles. It succumbed to the "problem" inherent in all of Guthrie's major works: his insistence on telling a great story in his own way and time, without fixating on a hero at its center. This didn't really matter -- though none of his books from the 1960s or beyond was filmed, he was at the top of his profession by the mid-'60s, regarded as something of a writers' writer, a master of his craft to whom others looked for inspiration. His sprawling narratives were unique in their time and context, and daunting to anyone who tried to emulate them. Guthrie published five novels in the 1960s and '70s, but his most important book of that period was the autobiographical The Blue Hen's Chick: A Life in Context, which was not only accessible and engaging but also captured the man's tremendous love of life and living, factors that motivated him throughout his life and career and made him the writer that he was. Guthrie passed away in 1991 at the age of 90; the films based on his novels and screenplays, including The Big Sky, The Kentuckian, The Way West, and -- most especially -- Shane, still attract large audiences and great respect.