James Stewart: The Western Collection (Winchester ’73/Bend of the River/The Far Country) Review

Beginning a two-part look at Universal’s recent repackaging of six James Stewart westerns, clydefro reviews the trio of titles directed by Anthony Mann

(Note: The James Stewart Western Collection is comprised of six films. In reviewing the set, I decided to split the number in half, allowing three films per discussion for a two-part essay. This initial piece focusses on Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, and The Far Country, which are the three films included that were directed by Anthony Mann. Reviews of Destry Rides Again, Night Passage, and The Rare Breed are available in a separate write-up.)

Like much of life, the remarkably fruitful collaboration between James Stewart and Anthony Mann was initiated largely on luck. Stewart was keen to make a film version of Harvey, the Mary Chase play about an alcoholic man with an invisible 6-foot rabbit for a best friend. He agreed with Universal to headline a western if he could also star as Elwood P. Dowd. Stewart would receive a percentage of the profits against his own salary, a seemingly risky deal that would reap huge rewards for the actor and, essentially, change the face of movie star salaries forever. Meanwhile, the studio was prepping a story by Stuart N. Lake. Lake had previously written the basis for John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, which, like Winchester ’73, featured Wyatt Earp, though far more prominently. Fritz Lang was lined up to direct, but later dropped out. With Stewart attached and the project in need of a director, it was apparently the actor’s own suggestion that Anthony Mann, who’d just directed his first westerns The Devil’s Doorway and The Furies after making a series of film noir pictures, be given the reins. Not only is the rest, as they say, history, but it also marked an immeasurably crucial turning point in Stewart’s acting career.

There was Frank Capra before and Alfred Hitchcock (before and) after, but no director was as vital in shaping James Stewart the actor as Anthony Mann. The Capra and Hitchcock films reveal an actor of enormous range and daring, but the Mann pictures establish Stewart’s unhinged virtuosity. No other movie star of this era was so willing to explore the darkest depths of their own soul on film like Stewart. One could quite reasonably point to his time as a bomber pilot in World War II as the catalyst. He returned from active service to play a suicidal man forced into life’s deepest depressions, but still managed to turn George Bailey into the American everyman. Four years later, in 1950, it was the western genre that toughened Stewart up, placing a pair of calloused “heroes” on his resume with Delmer Daves’ excellent Broken Arrow and Mann’s Winchester ’73. Four more Mann westerns would follow, and he’d work with the director eight times in total. Without the image overhaul Stewart experienced in these five essential deconstructions of the western genre, Rear Window and, especially, Vertigo would have been unthinkable.

The importance of Winchester ’73 can hardly be stressed enough. Those inclined to parse through every western of the era in search of the first example of what would later be deemed the psychological western or the postmodern western or the revisionist western, not necessarily the same thing, certainly, may settle upon Raoul Walsh’s Pursued or countless other films. Mann’s movie is of greater significance because not only did it establish so many characteristics completely adverse to the sentimentalism of Hollywood’s Old West, but it also ushered in a string of these kinds of films by the director. He kept hammering home his message film after film, not content to move on for the entire decade of the 1950s. They would get harsher, more violent, and increasingly difficult to reconcile, but, four more times, Mann repeated his mantra with Stewart as stand-in that the West was not the black and white simplicity taught by Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and John Wayne. When Stewart was no longer able to subject himself to Mann’s need for exceedingly unheroic protagonists, Gary Cooper was brought in for Man of the West, largely considered one of the director’s finest films and a culmination of what he was doing with the five Stewart pictures.

But it was really Winchester that started it all. Despite being just the first of multiple westerns released in 1950 for both Stewart and Mann, this was the one that helped shatter the myth of white hats and black hats, good and evil. Mann worked in ambiguity. Stewart’s character, Lin McAdam, is a hero by default. You could just as easily see him as a revenge-crazed madman, dead set on obtaining vengeance for a crime skirted around for much of the film, and against a man whose relationship with McAdam is likewise kept in the shadows. It also establishes the Mann-Stewart paradigm of an outsider with a mysterious past and a hidden agenda encountering a cast of characters, including a primary villain and a female love interest whose desires are partially repressed. Where Winchester ’73 differs from the four films that would follow are in some of the more superficial details. It’s shot in staggeringly gorgeous black and white, with cinematography by William Daniels that recalls John Alton’s noir shadows, and, at times, the focus seems to be more on the titular rifle than Stewart’s character.

McAdam begins the film by riding into town with his loyal old-timer High Spade (Millard Mitchell), another Mann-Stewart favourite. It happens that the town is Dodge City and the sheriff is a paunchy, bumbling Wyatt Earp (Will Geer). No guns allowed. A marksmanship contest has brought McAdam here, in search of someone we’re not yet introduced to, nor are we aware of the two men’s relationship. McAdam first eyes his prey, a man calling himself Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), in a saloon. Both men quickly move their hands to their sides, only to find empty spots normally filled by murderous guns. Soon afterwards, the contest commences and is narrowed down to just McAdam and Dutch Henry. A postage stamp decides the winner of an invaluable Winchester one-in-a-thousand repeating rifle. It’s McAdam. The old man taught him well. The rest of the way, we follow the gun as it changes hands with indiscriminate frequency. Dutch Henry covets the weapon, as does an Indian trader who wins it in a card game and the chief (played, improbably, by Rock Hudson) who takes it from him. Tony Curtis (billed as Anthony) fingers the gun, too, before handing it over to his sergeant (Jay C. Flippen), who then gives it to the yellow Steve Miller (Charles Drake), just after he’d cowered while leaving girlfriend Lola (Shelley Winters) in the lurch.

Waco Johnnie Dean (Dan Duryea) is the last to possess the rifle before Dutch Henry reclaims it. The latter will use it to fend off McAdam in the film’s climax. It’s not so much what happens in Winchester ’73 as how it happens. This is ingrained in most great movies. Plot is essential, but still takes a backseat to characterisation. The psychological undercurrent runs wide and deep here. Stewart’s McAdam is possessed, not by the desire to put his hands on the gun, but by the necessity of eliminating Dutch Henry. At some point, the viewer is required to question both McAdam’s motivation and his sanity. He has the determination of a bounty hunter, but there’s nothing at the end of the rainbow. Where’s his satisfaction? Death? The perverse notion that his hunted will no longer breathe the air of this Earth seems to drive McAdam in a most unhealthy way. It’s not entirely obvious how determined McAdam is for much of the film because other characters are so frequently interspersed within the storyline. Yet, each time McAdam is shown, what is he doing? The answer, of course, is that he is stalking, tracking, and hunting another human being.

When he finally does capture that intended satisfaction, of knowing that his vengeance is complete, McAdam is far from jubilant. Stewart ducks his head in disgusted contemplation as Mann makes sure to show the consequences of killing one’s own brother. Look elsewhere for celebratory lionisation. This is part of what makes Winchester ’73 such a despairing, unhappy film. That trend would continue, as none of the Mann-Stewart westerns contain a true happy ending, settling instead for a conclusion where 1950s audiences could go about their day undeterred while those willing to dig deeper might find a lot of troubling aftereffects present in Stewart’s characters.

All of the little consistencies within those five westerns might seem something like repetition, but, on the contrary, the better, more appropriate reading is that these films are all different variations on the same theme. Watching the second entry, Bend of the River, the similarities to Winchester ’73 are immediately obvious, but also deceptively so. The viewer could very well liken the two Stewart protagonists, as both men are strangers with a violent past. However, Bend of the River‘s Glyn McLintock is a man running away from something while Lin McAdam was inevitably in pursuit of a violence he was incapable of ignoring. McLintock, as played with brilliant nuance by Stewart, wishes to escape his memories of murder along the Missouri border. He’s attached himself to a family just about to enter the Oregon territory. The opening scenes here are atypically light-hearted for Mann, placing the focus on warm biscuits before a forcefully quick pan to Arthur Kennedy’s neck in a noose.

Kennedy’s Emerson Cole will be the other half of the coin to McLintock. Mann’s film is concerned with how and whether a man who’d previously lived a violent, unrepentant existence can change his ways. McLintock is trying to do just this while Cole, who’d been in a very similar position while on the Kansas side of the Missouri border, claims he too has moved on from the murderous life he’d once known. The two men quickly team up, fighting and killing a group of American Indians before rejoining the Baile family on their way to a fresh life out west. Jeremy Baile (played by Jay C. Flippen) laments in the film that Kansas and Missouri were good, clean places, like Oregon, until men came and altered things. He doesn’t realise that McLintock was one of these men he’s referring to, nor does he believe man is capable of changing so dramatically. The reality, as we see play out over the course of the film, is that man hardly ever wants to change. By the time Cole has predictably betrayed McLintock, leading to one of the most harrowing sets of lines found within the genre and a fine summation of the entire Mann-Stewart western output, the audience realises that man is perhaps capable of certain kinds of change, but rarely does he have the drive to put aside the well-traveled path in favour of doing the right thing.

McLintock threatens to return to his heartless ways both after being encouraged by Cole, who throws him a knife when he’s pinned a man to the ground, and following the betrayal, a frequent theme in the Mann-Stewart westerns. McLintock’s “I’ll be seein’ ya” soliloquy is chilling in its delivery, its conviction, and its effect. The audience wants this man to violently dispose of Cole. It’s not a matter of encouragement. We’re the raucous spectators at the Roman Colosseum. The final climax, as orchestrated by Mann and written by the unsung third wheel of these films Borden Chase, is filled with uneasy endings and morally troubling questions. McLintock must kill Cole. It’s one or the other surviving. But the aspect that resonates as terribly grey is whether McLintock really has changed. In sifting through the finer details of the five Mann-Stewart westerns, the endings always seem slightly unresolved. They’re brought to a close in standard Hollywood fashion, but, when pieced together with the larger whole, answers feel elusive.

In Bend of the River, McLintock leaves Cole’s lifeless body drifting down the Snake. The hero emerges cleansed of his past and his present. His killings in the film have been in self-defense. But does he have a taste for it? What of that knife that nearly entered another man’s flesh as a wild-eyed McLintock submitted? The easy answer is to judge him as cured, but, with echoes of the still fresh blood spilled in World War II, the more logical one seems to contradict whether someone so experienced in killing could possibly change. Stewart’s characters in the Mann westerns often have a propensity for causing violent death. Mann is pretty obviously saying that this, friends, is how the west was really won, with blood and, more importantly, savage inclination to repeat the taking of others’ lives. Our only hope is to get past this shame, move on, and start life anew. It’s a message that resonates.

By 1953, these collaborations were seen as successful for both parties. That year alone Mann directed Stewart in three films, including their third western The Naked Spur, which is available in R1 DVD from Warner Bros. The following year, with Stewart becoming increasingly fatigued both mentally and physically by Mann’s insistence on taking his characters ever further, the two men returned to Universal for The Far Country, once again written by Borden Chase. The result was the oddest, least compromising entry in the series. Its narrative is paced deliberately, spreading nuance by almost referring to the previous three Mann-Stewart westerns. The director nearly goads his audience into believing that they’re simply watching a new entry in this established saga, backstories already in place. But not so fast.

Stewart returns to the role of enigmatic outsider, but heightened in both respects. His character, Jeff Webster, is one of the actor’s least sympathetic creations, even bordering on unlikable for much of the film. His entire worldview is revealed in a simple line. “I take care of me.” Webster is hard, cold, and difficult to crack. Without the three previous films, Mann and Stewart could hardly have gotten by with such a stiff, seemingly blank character. The viewer is never exactly told who this man is, where he came from, or what it is he’s running away to forget. Like the other protagonists, Webster has had a bad experience with a woman that’s left him in this almost miserable condition. Only Walter Brennan’s Ben Tatum, the codger character, holds any sway with Webster. Tatum is his one friend and the sole person to whom he feels loyalty. It’s a perfect example of the western genre’s favoured male bonding in lieu of the protagonist’s inability to establish a trust with females.

As the film begins, Webster and Tatum have been herding cattle to Seattle, where the animals will be taken on a boat to Alaska. We soon find out Webster is wanted for murder, but his capture is narrowly avoided with the help of Ruth Roman’s Ronda Castle. This is another strange character. Similar to Joan Crawford’s Vienna in Johnny Guitar or Marlene Dietrich’s Altar Keane in Rancho Notorious, Ronda Castle is a woman thriving in a world traditionally inhabited by men. She runs a saloon in Skagway, the ship’s destination, and provides a pivotal role in delineating between Webster’s inherent desire to rid himself of the human race and his magnetic strength that seems to attract those in search of a more powerful figure. After landing in Skagway, the town’s sheriff, Gannon (played by John McIntire), is quickly angered by driving cattle that interrupt his punitive hanging. It’s all a show with Gannon. The disruption to him showing off his new execution facilities, more than the actual prevention of the hanging, sets him off.

With these three characters, Mann has set up his damaged hero, an aggressive love interest, and the empowered villain of the piece. Yet, confrontation is kept to a minimum. The Far Country is a film that meanders along at its own pace, far less concerned with appeasing the audience than the other four Stewart westerns. A good deal of time is expended quietly developing the idea of man’s destructive nature in view of the otherwise placid west. Like Bend of the River, the viewer is subjected to repeated mentions of the beauty of innocent landscapes, ones worse of wear after the arrival of humans. Mann was a keen observer of nature’s still pleasures, and his westerns often illuminate, usually as a secondary observation, the struggle between man’s need for conquering the wild and the natural peace that’s disrupted as a result. Remarkably, Mann expresses this not with characters so much as his camera. As observed by Jeanine Basinger in her book Anthony Mann, The Far Country is less concerned with placing the images of the gorgeous outdoors in our subconscious than it is devoted to exploring the artificiality of this movie purity. The long, lingering shots of the crisp mountains are hardly used. Instead, we have settlers invading a small Canadian town in hopes of stripping the Earth’s gold resources.

The duality between slowly destroying unmolested land and Webster’s inability to connect with other humans would seem to be entirely consistent. You could even argue that Webster foretells the alienated characters that would populate the films of the 1970s. Stewart plays him with such icy indifference that it’s striking to remember this is an otherwise charismatic movie star at work. Of the five Mann-Stewart westerns, The Far Country seems to be the least heralded, perhaps due to its inaccessibility, but Webster is by far the blankest slate of his characters, and, thus, the most interesting. He has none of the rage present in Stewart’s other characterisations, but also none of the guilt. When the final shoot-out forces Webster to act with violence, he does so without regret, in stark contrast to the Stewart characters in Mann’s other westerns.

The Discs

It’s worth reiterating that Universal’s James Stewart: The Western Collection contains a total of six films, packaged in individual slimcases, and the other three (Destry Rides Again, Night Passage, and The Rare Breed) are reviewed separately. All of these titles have been released previously, but this set does have new transfers for two of the three Anthony Mann-directed films.

Winchester ’73 is the jewel here, not just in film quality, but also in terms of how it looks. This progressive transfer is cleaned up from the previous release and is simply stunning at times. Blacks are largely rich and deep, entirely doing justice to a film with some of the most brilliant black and white cinematography of any western. While detail can look crisp and sharp in many scenes, at other times an infusion of grain is noticeable. This owes to the inconsistency of the elements surely and Universal’s quiet effort in improving their earlier edition should be commended. Despite what the bottom of the outer box claims, this disc (as well as the one for The Far Country) is dual-layered. The English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is fair to good, but has a small hiss that pops up infrequently. Subtitles, white in colour, are available for French, Spanish, and English for the hearing impaired.

Though it starts with the disclaimer that the original aspect ratio has been modified, Bend of the River is actually presented in its correct 1.33:1 full frame ratio. The single-layered disc is exactly the same as the individual release previously issued, sporting a strong, progressively transferred image. It too can be inconsistent and does venture into a softer picture quality at times, but, for the most part, the transfer looks more than acceptable. Close-ups, in particular, are often impressive in their sharp detail, and the colour palette has been nicely rendered, complete with bright blue skies and accurate-looking skin tones. Both the primary English and French dub audio tracks are in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. No complaints at all here, as the dialogue and musical score come through cleanly and without a hitch. English for the hearing impaired, French, and Spanish subtitles are optional, and white in colour.

Things get a little tricky with this new presentation of The Far Country. The previous R1 release was in the 1.33:1 standard aspect ratio while the R2 was 1.85:1. Universal has accommodated those wanting a widescreen edition in R1 by setting the aspect ratio at 1.85:1 here, and enhancing it for 16×9 televisions. The film’s 1954 release date places it somewhat on the cusp of the adoption of widescreen. It was almost certainly screened in both ratios, and probably framed with that in mind. Without any definitive proof as to the wishes of Anthony Mann and cinematographer William Daniels, what is the “correct” aspect ratio will probably have to exist in the eye of the beholder. Truthfully, I see nothing in the compositions that would require 1.85:1 over 1.33:1, but I know others see it differently. Because of the likely guarding against both ratios, either should be acceptable. Those keen on seeing what Mann could really do with a wider frame should seek out both The Man from Laramie and Man of the West, which were filmed in CinemaScope.

Regarding the quality of the new widescreen transfer of The Far Country, it looks about the same as the previous one. Detail and vibrancy aren’t on par with Bend of the River, but there aren’t any significant problems either. As with the other two Mann films, this transfer is progressive and quite clean, with dirt, grain, and damage kept fairly low. I do think this is the least impressive image of the three, though the bitrate is excellent. The English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track sounds fine – clear, consistent and free of any hiss or crackle. Subtitles are optional for French, Spanish, and English for the hearing impaired, and they are white in colour.

For Bend of the River and The Far Country only theatrical trailers serve as bonus material, but Winchester ’73 also has a commentary track with James Stewart that was recorded in 1989 for the film’s laserdisc release. In every DVD incarnation yet, Universal has insisted on describing the commentary as an “interview with James Stewart,” when it does in fact run the entire length of the film and has the actor reminiscing with some specificity as well as on his entire career. To my knowledge, this is the only interview of any length featuring Stewart that’s available on DVD at this time. If any fans of the actor aren’t fans of his westerns in general or Winchester ’73 in particular, they’d still be well-advised to secure this disc, either in the Western Collection set or the earlier individual release.

Final Thoughts

Those not inclined to read through several paragraphs should be aware that Universal’s release of six James Stewart westerns contains a significantly improved version of Winchester ’73 and a new widescreen transfer of The Far Country, though the quality on that particular title is still not entirely up to expectation. Factoring in Bend of the River and three additional films, this set becomes an essential addition for those who don’t already own these titles. If you do have one or more of the films, the set’s very reasonable price tag and scattered improvements on the previous, individual releases might still be enough to warrant a second bite. Certainly Winchester ’73 is a strong enough film that consumers will be keen on owning the best quality version, which currently is exclusive to this package. Stewart and Anthony Mann fans should probably do what they have to and at least consider purchasing this release. If nothing else, it looks nice on the shelf and takes up less space than owning even three of the single discs.

clydefro jones

Updated: Jul 02, 2008

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