Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In 1907, Grey, still an easterner, accompanied Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones on an Arizona hunting trip. The trip was a seminal experience for Grey, in the long term imbuing him with a lifelong wonder at the majesty of the American West and, more immediately, furnishing the material for several books—The Last of the Plainsmen (1908), The Heritage of the Desert (1910), Roping Lions in the Grand Canyon (1924), and Riders of the Purple Sage. As Mormons guided Jones and Grey across rivers and through desert and mountain terrain, the writer developed an unfavorable opinion of them. He hinted at his disapproval of Mormonism in The Heritage of the Desert and made it explicit in Riders of the Purple Sage. However, the grandeur of the West, the chivalry of the Western hero, and the strength of the Western heroine are the elements that have made Riders of the Purple Sage the most popular and most favorably reviewed of Grey’s many books.

Grey and Owen Wister, the author of The Virginian (1902), virtually created the Western novel, which, in turn, spawned the motion-picture Western. Between 1918 and the end of the twentieth century, Grey’s novels and short stories were adapted as feature films, serials, or made-for-television movies approximately 115 times. In addition, a weekly television series, Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theater, which ran from October, 1956, to September, 1962, used material only loosely connected or wholly unconnected to Grey’s writings. It is probable that more of Grey’s work has been adapted for the screen than that of any other American author. Riders of the Purple Sage alone was filmed five times—in 1918, 1925, 1931, 1941, and 1996. In the first four productions, the gunman Lassiter was portrayed by stars of the genre: in turn, William Farnum, Tom Mix, George O’Brien, and George Montgomery. In evaluating the 1941 production, a critic suggested that the story was creaking with age and had little life left in it. However, in 1996, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan produced and co-starred in a television adaptation—quite faithful to the romantic tone of the novel—that was a popular and critical success, thus reaffirming the appeal of this quintessential Western romance.