Owen Wister, a 25-year-old, Harvard-educated and somewhat sickly lawyer from Philadelphia, went west for his health and came away amazed by the Wyoming he discovered in 1885.
After several trips to the frontier over a 15-year period, Wister felt somewhat better -- he lived until 1938 -- and set out to make use of the copious diaries he'd written detailing the colorful characters he had found in Medicine Bow.
The result was his 1902 novel, "The Virginian." The book, regarded as the first Western novel, laid down a template for Western storytelling that would endure for the rest of the century.
TNT presents a new version of this old story Sunday night at 8, with encores at 10 and midnight. This movie tries to be true to Wister's work, but ironically, that fidelity also gives "The Virginian" a feel different from most of the Westerns that have followed Wister's sampler.
Bill Pullman, best known as an actor, but who trained as a director, both stars and directs.
"This was an attempt to go back to the book," said Pullman, who plays "The Virginian." "I found the book surprising. I knew the novel was the start of all the conventions that Westerns followed. John Ford based several of his movies on the structure he found there."
That structure includes a woman from the East newly arrived in the rough-and-tumble West. "Ford used that in `She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,' " said Pullman. "And in `Lonesome Dove,' you have the lynching of a good friend."
As the story goes, another of the "Virginian" bench marks was inspired by a poker game Wister witnessed in which a player called a deputy sheriff a vulgar name. The deputy replied, "When you call me that, smile." "The Virginian" added that line to pop culture.
Another Wister Western convention -- and surely the most copied one -- is the dramatic gunfight in the final act.
"The Virginian" has been turned into a theatrical film a number of times, dating back to the silent era. Gary Cooper played him in 1929, for instance, and Joel McCrea did a remake in 1946.
The book was also the vehicle for a successful TV series that ran from 1962 to 1971. That show took a number of liberties with the book that are not repeated in this film. The Trampas character, played by Doug McClure, was a good guy. Here, Colm Feore plays him as a villain, the way Wister wrote it.
There were certain things the series needed, Pullman noted, such as running characters, including Trampas, and non-running characters. "Every woman who came into the TV series either had to die or go away because the Virginian was always going to be alone," he said.
And Pullman's Virginian takes an approach to the story's main woman in a way few Western heroes do. "He's not shy, waiting for the woman to advance to him," said Pullman. Indeed, the Virginian tells Diane Lane -- as Molly Stark, the woman from the East -- that she's going to fall in love with him before too long.
The language of the novel, adopted for the film, makes the dialogue sound unlike most Westerns. "Wister kept accurate journals," said Pullman, "so he may have taken a lot of the language from the times." So the dialogue at times sounds a bit quaint, a bit early American -- definitely not your usual Western patois.
And Medicine Bow does not resemble the usual Western town of shops and saloons lined up along Main Street. "Wister said when he looked at Medicine Bow, the buildings looked like bones strewn across the ground," said Pullman.
If the language seems a little strange, some faces will be familiar to Western watchers. Lane starred in the TV miniseries version of "Lonesome Dove." Dennis Weaver, who played Chester in the long-running "Gunsmoke" series, is on hand as a rival rancher.
And television's "Virginian," James Drury, now in his mid-sixties, has a cameo.
"I wanted to find what was in the book that could be timeless," said Pullman, summing up his approach to "The Virginian. "How do you make that work now? One way was not to add but to take away. By not having it too cluttered, but spare and direct, you could have an authenticity you respect now."