Capsule: THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD tells the true story of the nearly amorous, sometimes-touching, relationship of a lackluster school teacher and a mother-dominated pulp fiction writer in West Texas in the 1930s. What gives the story its interest is that the writer is Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan, King Kull, and Solomon Kane. This is a well-textured observation of two very different personalities in a story of contrasts: the difference in personalities of the two main characters, the difference in their writing styles, and the differences between Howard and the characters about whom he wrote. This slow-paced film will not be to all tastes, but it creates its period and tells us a great deal about writing in general. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4)
In 1934 Robert E. Howard's friends called him "the best pulp writer in the whole wide world." These days that title would more likely go to Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. P. Lovecraft. However, in some order, the next two names probably would be Walter Gibson and Robert E. Howard. Howard invented the popular genre of fantasy novel today called "Sword and Sorcery." His most popular character is, of course, Conan of Cimmeria (a.k.a. Conan the Barbarian) who with a powerful sword and a rudimentary intelligence fights the powers of Black Magic in a prehistoric world of monsters and sorcerers. (Of course, the sword was made more powerful and the intelligence more rudimentary in the 1982 John Milius film CONAN THE BARBARIAN and its 1984 sequel CONAN THE DESTROYER, both starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.) But THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD is not the story of larger-than-life people and huge mystical events, it is more whimper than bang. In 1934 a schoolteacher and aspiring writer, Novalyne Price, met and got to know Bob Howard. Years later, in probably the only piece of her writing that ever got any attention, she told the story of that friendship in a memoir entitled ONE WHO WALKED ALONE. That memoir is the basis of THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD.
Price (played by Renee Zellweger who currently also has the co- starring role in JERRY MAGUIRE) is introduced to Howard (Vincent D'Onofrio) by a mutual friend. Most of the town of Cross Plains in rural West Texas think of Howard as being a little strange and unbalanced. The truth is that most of the town is probably right. Howard's life, other than his writing, is owned and jealously guarded by his sickly mother. Howard takes care of his mother is some ways that are more personal than most sons would and most of his world revolves around his mother. His one outlet is his typewriter where he turns what are little more than expanded adolescent fantasies into adventure prose, often shouting out that prose as he writes a story. Price intrudes on the relationship between the Howard and his mother to make friends with the twenty-eight-year- old writer. She maintains a relationship that goes little beyond the platonic with the stocky child-man. She herself would like to be a good writer in the classic sense and has a hard time telling Howard that he should aspire to writing more than his swaggering fantasies.
The great irony, of course, but one that the narrative never admits except by its very existence, is that Price is 180 degrees wrong. There can be as much art to writing an adolescent fantasy really well as there can be to describing the real world. Her own well-observed description of her dating period is of interest only in that it sheds light on the forces that formed the pulp fiction she looked down upon. On the other hand Howard perhaps in innocence never doubted that his swaggering stories were the gull-darnedest best writing around. And he was, in fact, writing a literature that once it was rediscovered in the 1960s would never be out of print and would be an inspiration to generations of writers. Price's position in the world of literature today is as a footnote, remembered as the woman who dated Howard and whose reminiscences gave us a look into his personal life. This subtext is more of interest than the actual text of the film.
Vincent D'Onofrio is already establish as one of our better feature actors. Since he played the doomed Private Pyle in FULL METAL JACKET he has had an enviable succession of character roles. Renee Zellweger is a graduate of horror films who has lucked into having two star-making roles (JERRY MAGUIRE being the other) on the screen in one Christmas season. This is Dan Ireland's first time directing, though he has produced, or executive-produced, such diverse films as the 1988 film TWISTER, PAPERHOUSE, and WHORE. He does a reasonable job, though fails to keep the characters consistently interesting. Occasionally he goes in for some hammy photography tricks like crudely darkening a strip at the top of the screen to create the effect of a darkened sky.
It is not clear that this film really stands well on its own. If it were a work of fiction it would just be a story of the dating between two people who were not really very interesting in the final analysis. THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD gives little feel for the sort of stories that Howard was writing at the time, except for their overwhelming silliness and juvenility. And certainly the stories will bear that interpretation. Where the story gets its real impetus is not from the endings that Price sees in the story, but in the beginnings that she does not appreciate. I give this film a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 1996 Mark R. Leeper
Mark R. Leeper