Butcher’s Crossing Betrays the Brilliant Novel That Inspired It
Michelle Nijhuis on the New Adaptation of John Williams’s Novel
The author, teacher, and scholar John Williams wrote four novels during his career, but he habitually refused to claim credit for the first, written while he was in his twenties and serving in the US Army Air Corps during World War II. The three books that met his standards are carefully crafted—one critic called Stoner, published in 1965, “a perfect novel”—and each subverts a different genre.
Butcher’s Crossing, published in 1960, is shaped like a Western: it follows a young, wealthy white man from the East Coast as he seeks adventure, and himself, on the frontier. When Will Andrews arrives in the frontier outpost of Butcher’s Crossing, he is quickly persuaded to underwrite a buffalo-hunting expedition headed by a veteran hide hunter named Miller. Miller leads Andrews and their two companions to an isolated mountain valley in Colorado, where they encounter an enormous herd of buffalo—and descend into a hell of their own making. The Western genre demands that its heroes be bettered by their trials; Williams had other ideas.
Butcher’s Crossing broke trail for other revisionist Westerns such as Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog (1967) and Cormac McCarthy’s operatically violent Blood Meridian (1985). Though Butcher’s Crossing is ostensibly more traditional than Blood Meridian, there is something of Andrews in McCarthy’s nameless “kid,” and something of Miller in McCarthy’s fearsome Judge Holden. And Blood Meridian, like Butcher’s Crossing, lays waste to the notion that the frontier rewarded those who tested it: “Your heart’s desire is to be told some mystery,” says Holden. “The mystery is that there is no mystery.”
Anti-Westerns are inherently anti-Hollywood—their characters aren’t transformed, and their audiences aren’t absolved—and none of these novels translates easily to film. The Power of the Dog waited more than half a century for its compelling if imperfect 2021 adaptation, and Blood Meridian, which has resisted directors including Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott, is currently in the hands of director John Hillcoat. Sixty-three years after its publication, Butcher’s Crossing now has its adaptation, directed by Gabe Polsky and co-starting Fred Hechinger as Andrews and Nicolas Cage as Miller. Unfortunately, the film does no justice to its source.The film is about as menacing as Little House on the Prairie.
Butcher’s Crossing is a quiet novel, but its characters are incessantly menaced by the elements, by one another, and by what they find—and don’t find—within. The film is about as menacing as Little House on the Prairie. The town of Butcher’s Crossing is too neat, and its people are too attractive; Miller, Andrews, and their companions are suspiciously clean and well-fed, even in the depths of their suffering. Cage, who seems to be trying to deliver his lines without moving his mouth, is less than convincing as the impassive, uncannily skilled Miller, and Hechinger is literally and metaphorically just along for the ride. (Jeremy Bobb and Xander Berkeley play their supporting roles with more verve.) Though the film adds two murders to the novel’s plot, no one ever seems to be in much danger—except, of course, the bison, whose pointless slaughter is effectively portrayed.
The production makes much of the fact that it was filmed primarily on land belonging to the Blackfeet Nation, and features bison loaned from Blackfeet herds. A postscript rightly acknowledges the Blackfeet’s role in Indigenous-led efforts to restore bison to the North American plains. But the references to Native Americans in the script, none of which are drawn from the book, range from ham-handed to corrosively stereotypical. There is an awkward, out-of-character tribute to the Native American practice of using buffalo bones for “just about everything, everything from needles to war clubs”; a grisly corpse supposedly mutilated by Native people who “don’t like [white] hunters”; and even a stage-whispered reference to the horror-movie trope of “Indian burial grounds.” If these are attempts at inclusion, they’re not only inept but unnecessary: the central figures in Butcher’s Crossing are profoundly self-absorbed men, and to pretend that they spared even an insulting thought for others dilutes the bleak power of the novel.
The mutilated corpse and the burial-ground reference help to turn Butcher’s Crossing into a film about frontier brutality and its just desserts. But that lets the audience off the hook, allowing us to see Butcher’s Crossing as a tragic story long since resolved. The novel that Williams constructed with such care is far more complicated and far less comforting.
Scholar and novelist Michelle Latiolais, who studied with Williams at the University of Denver, points out that he wrote Butcher’s Crossing during the prelude to the Vietnam War, and published it as the first few hundred US troops arrived in Vietnam. Millions of civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers died on that Cold War frontier, another place advertised as an opportunity to fortify the American character. The lies that drive the tragedy of Butcher’s Crossing were retold then, and are still told today.