Bend Of The River Review
For the first half of his career, James Stewart was the embodiment of the way America wanted to see itself; upstanding, fair, honest and essentially good. Certainly, there were hints of a darker side, notably in Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, but the final reel always brought him back as righteous and justified. It’s in this context that what happened to Stewart’s screen image in the 1950s is so fascinating. There was a gradual deconstruction of the Stewart persona until in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, from 1958, this symbol of the American dream stood revealed as a collection of neuroses; sexually obsessive, essentially flawed and hopelessly lost in the space between everything he wants the world to be and the inescapable facts of how it really is.
The key figure in Stewart’s development during this period, along with Hitchcock, is Anthony Mann, the director of Bend of the River. In a series of five Westerns - Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man From Laramie - Mann and Stewart developed a series of themes which could perhaps be defined as “Western Noir”. Mann’s concerns with implacable pursuit, the relentless shadow of the past and the flawed nature of the traditional Western hero are dark and brooding and there’s a constant irony to his genre films – and you can add the non-Stewart The Tin Star and Man of the West to the list – which is instantly identifiable and proved hugely influential. It could be argued that Mann’s heroes are the vital link between John Ford’s Captain Nathan Brittles and Ethan Edwards and his films are clearly the model for such late Westerns as Unforgiven and crypto-Westerns like Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia.
Jimmy Stewart plays Glenn McLintock, driver of a wagon train heading up into the mountains of Oregon looking for a new life. Haunted by his past, he is eager to make a new start himself but he runs into problems when he rescues Emerson Cole (Kennedy) from being lynched for stealing cattle. McLintock and Cole share a dark past but McLintock’s eagerness to escape it isn’t shared by Cole, who merely wants to find a new environment in which to continue his old ways. Complications set in when Laura (Adams), daughter of the settler’s leader, chooses to remain in Portland rather than move into farming with her family, and takes up with Cole. Meanwhile, the supplies promised to the settlers by Portland’s mayor are not forthcoming and McLintock returns to the town to find out what has happened. He soon finds himself confronting the temptations of his past and finds his resolve to change is being sorely tested.
Bend of the River sets up a direct contrast between two men attempting to escape their past. Both men were Missouri border raiders and both are on the run from the law. But Glenn McLintock is desperately searching for a life which will allow him to correct the mistakes of his past and remove the constant reminder of a noose around his neck. Cole, on the other hand, simply hopes to evade justice catching up with him. The crux of McLintock’s heroism is his desire to change his character and prove that he has made a new start, despite a lingering belief both in the people around him and himself that change is impossible. He’s constantly assailed by doubts which mingle with the optimism of the people around him and a tentative sense that redemption is possible and maybe even his for the taking. It’s ironic that, as the narrative unfolds, it’s Cole’s provocations that lead to McLintock coming closest to abandoning change, as he swears to the outlaw that he will never let him rest, that he will always come after him seeking revenge.
It seems appropriate that a story about change should be played out against the background of a community looking for its own new beginnings in the great push outwards of the 1880s. The art direction is gorgeously evocative of the period, when so many settlers, often seeking to heal the lingering scars of the Civil War, were looking for “a way to get over that mountain” and find a place to build a new world. Unfortunately, in looking for change, settlers were reliant upon the good faith of town like the emergent Portland – initially a haven but increasingly, with the advent of the Gold Rush, in the grip of a social and economic boom which it can’t control. Portland is certainly a place of exciting change but it’s not the change that the settlers are looking for and it’s exactly the sort of place to welcome unredeemed outlaws like Cole. The character of Laura is significant. She gives in to the exotic pleasures offered by Portland, seeking excitement rather than the farming life of her family. In doing so, she gravitates towards Cole, allowing more conflict between Cole and McLintock – the latter’s unrequited desire contrasting with the former’s successful seduction.
As always in Mann’s westerns, there’s an undertow of violence always threatening to erupt. In this film, it’s a vital part of the character of McLintock, whose ability to maintain his changed point of view is severely tested. James Stewart’s performance is wonderful, that patient drawl gradually undercut by doubt and fear. Cole and McLintock share a common past but Stewart finds subtle ways to indicate the divergence of their futures. He also has a beautifully poignant moment when he doubts that he really has the ability to change and almost gives in to the temptation of violence. Stewart is well matched by Arthur Kennedy, an actor with a special talent for authoritative villainy as he demonstrated in films as different as Some Came Running and The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue. In support, Rock Hudson makes an early impression as the reckless gambler and horror fans will note the appearance of two unwilling recipients of the attentions of the Creature From The Black Lagoon, Lori Nelson and Julie Adams.
Borden Chase – who also wrote Winchester ’73 and The Far Country - writes great dialogue, tinged with an epic sense of changing times and an ear for dialect and gentle comedy. He manages to create distinctive figures out of stock characters with young Margie – torn between the desire to find a man and a determination never to iron a shirt – standing out. Some of the comedy is likely to make modern viewers a bit uncomfortable, based as it is around broad racial humour from Stepin Fetchit as the steamboat first mate Adam and Chubby Morgan as the captain. This is from a clear vaudeville tradition and is often quite funny in a knockabout way, although Morgan’s constant refrain to Adam, “We never should’a left Mississippi” sits a little uneasily at times. However, it should be remembered that Fetchit, despite his demeaning nom-de-plume, was the first black performer in America to become a millionaire (although he lost the money in short order largely due to a fondness for gambling) and was awarded an NAACP award for opening doors for black performers in movies. My advice is to watch the film in context of the time it was made and enjoy the expert timing of these veteran comics without allowing justifiable liberal doubts to get in the way.
Bend of the River begins brightly and gradually becomes darker and darker as McLintock’s internal conflict is externalised through his relationship with Cole – who embodies the temptations of violence and danger. It looks quite stunning with superb Academy ratio Technicolor cinematography and a greater degree of location shooting than was customary at the time. I don’t think it’s Mann’s best collaboration with Stewart, lacking the inexorable pace and narrative logic of The Naked Spur but it’s a well paced, intelligent and hugely enjoyable film which is a good introduction to one of the great director-actor partnerships of 20th Century cinema.
Universal’s collection of Westerns contains a motley assortment of films, ranging from two Mann-Stewart collaborations to the low-budget quickie Duel At Silver Creek and the vulgar The Rare Breed. In terms of extras, only Winchester ‘73 stands out, but Bend of the River has at least been blessed with good presentation.
The film is transferred in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with a mono soundtrack. The visual transfer is generally very pleasing. The rich colours are stunningly good, richly saturated and so vivid that they knock your eyes out. There’s a fair but not excessive amount of grain and only a minor amount of print damage. Detail is fine and the only major criticism is that artefacting is present in some of the darker sequences. The monophonic soundtrack is entirely acceptable with crisp dialogue and a satisfyingly full music score.
There are 20 chapter stops and English subtitles. No extras are present and the main menu is backed by music which sounds to be from a different film entirely.
Bend of the River is essential viewing for lovers of Westerns and anyone who appreciates Hollywood at its best. The good transfer means that it’s worth purchasing despite the lack of extra features.