It's nice to know there was a time when TV movies weren't all about mega piranhas and avalanche sharks. The Homecoming is the second film taken from the novel, Spencer's Mountain, and it's not a bad effort at all. Despite its reputation, it's actually a lot less sickly than most Christmas movies, and the lack of background music makes it feel that much more real.
Our first glimpse of the Walton clan is pitched midway between the earlier film and the later TV series. Like the film, its outdoor scenes are shot in Wyoming, but the characters have been renamed and there are seven children rather than nine. If you've seen the series then you'll recognise most of the characters straight up. Ep is a little less friendly than he will be later, and Yancy's character is named Charlie Snead, but the rest are there or thereabouts. Other than Esther and the children, however, all the actors are different. It's a little strange at first, but you do get used to it.
The film falls neatly into two halves. The first half focuses on the Walton household and the dynamic between its members. I really enjoyed this. Patricia Neal is excellent as Olivia. Her take on the part is very different to Michael Learned's but she creates a wonderful character. The children's scenes are also very good. Even at this early stage, a lot of the behaviour seems very familiar: Jason on his harmonica, Erin telling tales, Elizabeth saying things and getting laughed at. Top marks though go to Mary Ellen; she absolutely rocks in her sulky teen role.
It all goes a bit off the boil when John-boy is sent to search for his dad. He drives through the woods for a bit, spends aaaaaaages in a boring church service then sings songs with the Baldwins. When the search does at last get going, he finds the road blocked by a fallen tree and simply goes home. I'd much rather they'd spent the time showing what had happened to John.
There are a few other things that grate. Ben and Jim Bob have terrible seventies hair. Rev Dooley never appears again (though the actor who plays him will later star in 'The Fighter'). I also don't get why John-boy's writing is such a big secret. The scene where he is sat on the bed explaining himself is very nicely done, but it stands apart from the rest of the film.
Gripes aside though, this is a great introduction to America's favourite family. I'm glad it got picked up as a series.