When it’s on: Sunday, 20 January (12.30 pm)
Today’s screening of The Far Country reflects the fact it’s last of the five Anthony Mann-James Stewart collaborative Westerns that I’ve seen. Before moving onto the specific title, I thought I may take some time to discuss the partnership in general terms, particularly considering it produced such rich viewing.
I’m reasonably new to the Western. For years, it seemed to me a genre that ‘your Grandad watched’, but it never felt like it would mean anything to me. It’s an established assumption that the Western had its Golden Age in the 1950s, many years after it had first appeared in American cinemas and ebbed and flowed in popularity since the earliest days of the form. But the fifites were a long time ago, even when I was a child, and the Western has muddled along ever since, relegated to niche or novelty projects while other subjects have long since taken over domination of our screens. In short, it felt old hat.
But times and attitudes change, and I don’t know if it was a viewing of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that did it, but there was a certain point when I realised I’d missed something pretty damn good and started to catch up with Westerns. Over the last few years, I know I’ve watched more films set in the Old West than any other; not just that, but the DVDs have dominated my shopping basket as my tastes have reverted with increasing frequency to classic cinema, indeed my Christmas list (we still write them in my house – get over it) was a series of titles almost wholly from the 1940s and 1950s, along with The Artist, which itself is a hark back to simpler times. It’s fortunate that some very fine bloggers are also big Western fans. Their recommendations and sheer enthusiasm have helped to guide me, though it’s been just as much fun to stumble across something like The Last Train to Gun Hill (because it was available on LoveFILM Instant) and lose myself to its virtuosity.
I’ve watched an awful lot of Westerns over the last few years, making a point of catching the titles that routinely make up the ‘Best of’ lists but delving deeper still, realising of course that the genre was as capable as any other of churning out generic offerings (‘oaters’, I suppose) yet throwing up the odd nice surprise at the same time. An instance of the latter came with Badman’s Territory, screened by the BBC over the holiday and, in retrospect, doing little more than providing a footnote in Randolph Scott’s development as the tall, dark, handsome, and often barely speaking, hero of the frontier. In reality, it’s matinee fluff, condescending its audience with some blarney about a lawless oblong of pre-Oklahoma land that served as an excuse to shoehorn together a number of real-life Western legends who could never have actually rubbed shoulders. But there came a point that I started to really enjoy it, in particular Scott’s sheer presence commanding the screen as the plot unfolds.
Badman’s Territory is no one’s idea of an essential title, though I’m glad I watched it. There’s no comparison with the best of John Ford, though one man’s work in the genre that stands up to scrutiny is that of Anthony Mann, especially the films he made with James Stewart in a starring role. I think one of the things I like best about the Mann-Stewart pentology (sorry) is its brevity. Without checking this for accuracy, I don’t remember any of their movies running far past the 90-minute mark, and under someone else’s guidance it probably would have been a different story. Had, say, Bend of the River been a John Ford film, I might have expected an extra thirty minutes, allowing for further ‘sprawl’ and the development of certain sub-plots. Hey, it might have worked just as well, having more to say about American values as supporting characters are teased into metaphors for moral codes or contemporary attitudes. Yet Mann’s approach allows instead for really tight plotting, a gift to viewers as his films are often packed with lots happening and consequently I finish them almost out of breath, barely able to believe so much was covered in an hour and a half. Credit here goes to Borden Chase, the former gangster’s chauffeur who made the unlikely step from driving Frankie Yale around to writing the marvelous scripts of three Mann-Stewart Westerns and stuffing them with dense plotting, focusing on the ratcheted-up tension of human drama borne out of difficult situations. Yet it couldn’t have worked without good direction, and happily these films were knocked up by one of the best, albeit one of the most underrated, in the business.
Perhaps it’s Mann’s love of silent cinema that made the difference. Whilst his films contain a regular amount of dialogue, the director captured the language of bodies, facial expressions, interior sets and locations. The latter makes for some incredible viewing, barren landscapes that continually mirror the often brutal action and tension taking place among the characters. Make no mistake, his films seem to say, this is a harsh, dog eat dog world where no one can be trusted and each time you rely on another person remains a considerable gamble. The success of his work depended on good acting talent, and it’s our good fortune as viewers that he struck up a fruitful working partnership with James Stewart.
There’s a clear line drawn between Stewart’s work before and after his war service. The idealistic, young man’s roles in which he excelled prior to his years in the US Air Force gave way to increasingly cynical and world weary character sketches, notably for Alfred Hitchcock but no less significantly in the Westerns he made with Mann. Taking advantage of his maturity (Stewart was in his forties during this period), the actor looked as though he’d barely been made up, appearing to have a good few years behind him, his face bearing the wrinkles and marks of a life that had been eventfully lived. Given that life expectancy on the frontier can’t have been at all high, the suggestion is of a man who’s seen and done a lot, and sure enough Stewart’s hallmark character arrives on the screen with a rounded back story. Often enough, his past has contained disreputable deeds, followed by a lengthy period of atonement that has left him older, wiser, skilled in gunmanship but most of all wishing to settle down for his waning years and appreciating similar desires in others. It’s a character trait that’s been copied often down the years, most successfully perhaps by Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, and like Will Munny the men Stewart plays have killed just about everything that walks or crawls and want nothing more than to walk away from that kind of living. Of course, that just isn’t going to happen and naturally, his old skills will be called upon, usually to devastating effect. What boils to the surface here are Stewart’s skills as a physical performer. Often, he undergoes some sort of ordeal in the course of his films, or needs to express extreme anger or pain, and Mann captures superbly the reactions on his careworn face. There’s a moment in The Man from Laramie (probably my favourite of the series, but not by a long chalk) when his character, Will Lockhart, is held down and gets shot in his hand. You might expect the picture’s hero to take it with a steely grimace, but that doesn’t happen. Instead, Stewart whimpers, grimaces, clutches his mutilated hand, every nuance of the pain, the loss of dignity and power sprawled across his features. Or how about the explosion of rage when he overpowers a man in Winchester ’73? Or the look of naked hate he fixes on Arthur Kennedy’s traitor in Bend of the River as he tells him that ‘every time you bed down for the night, you’ll look back to the darkness and wonder if I’m there.’ It’s powerful stuff, explicitly laid bare by Stewart and loaded with significance by Mann’s direction. The effect overall is to establish Stewart as an outstanding contributor to the genre, and Mann as a director straight out of the top drawer. And it seemed to work best when the pair collaborated. Neither Night Passage, Stewart’s first Western after the partnership ended, nor The Tin Star, Mann’s following film with Henry Fonda taking the ‘Stewart’ role against an underpowered Anthony Perkins, were in the same league.
The eponymous far country in this, the fourth entry in the partnership, is the Yukon, the scene of the Klondike Gold Rush that had would-be prospectors flooding into north-western Canada at the close of the nineteenth century. Stewart plays Jeff Webster, an opportunist who drives a herd of cattle from Wyoming to Dawson because he knows the mining community will pay through the nose for good beef. But it’s a perilous journey. The film opens with Webster making the boat trip from Seattle to Skagway, Alaska, the intention from here being to cross the difficult terrain into Canada and Dawson. But before he can take this step he’s apprehended in Skagway by the corrupt town boss, Gannon (John McIntire), who makes an attempt to confiscate his livestock unscrupulously. It turns out that Gannon exploits the window of opportunity opened by the gold rush far more ruthlessly than Webster. Whilst appearing more likeable and charismatic than the notably sullen hero, his aim is nothing less than to control all areas of potential profit within the region, hiring gangs to kill anyone who stands in his way.
Webster gets his chance to escape Gannon’s clutches when he agrees to accompany businesswoman Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman) and her supplies to Dawson, even managing to reclaim his cattle and eventually get his windfall. Yet once in Dawson, his conscience is increasingly pricked by the plight of the prospecting community, which is being decimated by Gannon’s greed, as the plot builds towards a climactic showdown between the pair.
Whilst Stewart specialised in playing morally complex characters for Mann, there are probably none more conflicted than Jeff Webster, who makes it clear from the outset that he isn’t interested in getting involved in anything more noble than making money and even rejects Dawson’s offer of the sheriff’s badge. He opts for the equally self-motivated Ronda over the romantic attentions of Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet), the adorable french-Canadian girl who scratches a living from collecting gold dust in order to send her father to medical school in Vienna. He barely seems able to stand Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan), the ageing sidekick who never leaves his side despite Webster’s brusque attitude. There’s a well conceived contrast between Webster and Gannon, with the latter presented initially as the better guy and almost persuading viewers to like him more. And as usual, Webster emerges into The Far Country as a fully rounded character, complete with a murderous past and desire to earn just enough to buy his dream ranch. Over the course of the film, he’s continually forced to re-examine his self-interested motives, as the bodies of people who aren’t ‘owned’ by Gannon pile up and it’s the death of a close friend that ultimately places him in heroic opposition.
The complicated, sprawling plot, with its various characters and issues made explicit, still make for a film that clocks in beneath the 100-minute mark, with room allowed for Henry Mancini’s fine score and some stunning photography by cinematographer William Daniels. The Far Country was filmed in the Canadian Rockies, allowing for a string of picture postcard images, particularly of Saskatchewan Glacier, which both emphasise the remoteness of the film’s happenings and reflect Webster’s own, loner’s sensibilities.
The Far Country: ****