The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

When it’s on: Monday, 28 March (12.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

There’s no use crying. You don’t understand all this, do you? In the old days there was gold from the wars for the legionnaires, but your father… He was a great man, but with this new Rome it’s all changed.

The Fall of the Roman Empire is infamous as the film that bankrupted its producer Samuel Bronston and sounded a death knell for the lavish epic. Making back a mere quarter of its titanic $20 million budget at the box office, it was a complete flush and a warning to the industry never to gamble so recklessly again. Now, with the financial misfire taking place more than fifty years ago we can see it for the brilliant picture it is – large scale, truly epic, absorbing with subtle levels of characterisation and plotting, and with all those high production values placed front and centre. While writing this, I’m listening to Dimitri Tionmkin’s score; it’s a thing of utter melancholic beauty, which kind of sums up the film itself.

Bronston had always thrown the dice when making his features. Before this one, he’d come up trumps with the likes of King of Kings and El Cid, each one outdoing the last for their ensemble casts, massive sets and armies of extras. Today in the CGI age we can really appreciate the effort, the way these films had to employ thousands of people to play the parts that special effects would simply fill in digitally now. The production company was based in Spain, and Bronston would entertain his guests with tours of the films’ sets, indeed there’s a suggestion that these walkabouts were part of the point for the egotistical producer. In any event, the Roman Forum set built for The Fall of the Roman Empire holds the record as the largest ever built outdoors, and a splendour it was, ancient buildings reconstructed with a gorgeous attention to detail and sense of giant scale. I guess if you’re going to fail then you might as well do it on a spectacular level, and few films did that quite so fulsomely.

The film was conceived from director Anthony Mann, fresh from the success of El Cid, reading Edward Gibbons’s massive examination of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a series of works written in the eighteenth century that attempted to tackle one of history’s great questions. Covering Rome from the end of the first century CE to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, it remains a terrific if time consuming analysis, still eminently readable and wholly objective in its outlook. The task facing the production was to condense Gibbon’s central thesis into a single film, selecting a single episode from history in order to illustrate why the ‘decline and fall’ took place, when exactly the rot started to creep in. The ruinous reign of Commodus from 180 to 192 CE was chosen as it came after the rule of Rome’s ‘five good Emperors’ and suggested the fragility of the its vast and sprawling empire when it was mismanaged. Rome lurched on for a few hundred more years before being overwhelmed by ‘barbarians’ and remaining solely in the east, because it was still powerful enough to continue, but Commodus showed how it was vulnerable to corruption and bad decision making.

On a political level, the film plays the start of the fall as a tragedy, suggesting that Marcus Aurelius’s vision for the empire’s future was undone by his death and the subsequent Commodus, who partly through sheer spite against his father took Rome’s policy in the opposite and destructive direction. Both men were actual historical figures, and Marcus Aurelius’s daughter, Lucilla, existed in reality also. The fictional element comes in the shape of Livius, a general on the Danube frontier who shares Marcus Aurelius’s ideas and is also Lucilla’s lover. The ageing Emperor’s plan is for Livius to ascend to the throne after him, marry Lucilla and guide the Empire into a new age of prosperity and inclusiveness, but he dies before he can enact it and Commodus instead takes over, with terrible consequences, what the contemporary historian Cassius Dio described as a descent ‘from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust’.

Whereas the focus is inevitably on Commodus’s folly as Emperor, helped by a performance filled with elan by the then up and coming Christopher Plummer, all playful smiles and mental fixed stares, the film takes its good time to show Rome’s corruption as about more than one man. Marcus Aurelius is killed not by his son but as a consequence of plotting from self-serving Senators who can see in his plans the deaths of their own advancement. Both Emperors are surrounded by would-be assassins, political opportunists on the make, which lends the film a degree of terrifying topicality. It’s worth bearing in mind that it was made during JFK’s assassination, and whether or not you believe the President was murdered by one man or a conspiracy the reality is a lot of people stood to lose much from his continued existence and this film suggests an expediency in Marcus Aurelius’s death that gives it a delicious level of subtlety. Compare it, as we must really, with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, in which Commodus suffocates his father in order to advance to the throne, and the contrast is astonishing. In Gladiator, while the servile Senators are still present and correct the characters are rather one-dimensional, whereas in The Fall of the Roman Empire Commodus is presented as being merely at the apex of a rotten society, a corrupt business that is already eating itself away from within. Decline and fall? You’d better believe it’s happening!

Plummer is one of the better performances delivered by a stunning ensemble cast. These movies employed armies of well known faces as a matter of course but The Fall of the Roman Empire takes this element to its natural summit. At the very top is Alec Guinness’s Marcus Aurelius, trying to hold it together and enact his reforms in a race against his advancing illness. The ‘fall’ of the film’s second half works on his absence. Once he’s gone there’s a vacuum, well minded characters struggling because the man at the top who they believed in is no longer around to support them. Plummer’s Commodus is a study in opposites – younger, more energetic, thrusting forward without any thought of the consequences, far and decisively removed from the carefully considered philosophies of Marcus Aurelius. A marvellous and riveting scene in the debating house, where Senators discuss the merits of settling former enemies to farm on Roman land, illustrates this perfectly. The lickspittles who’ve advanced through Commodus argue against accommodating the ‘barbarians’, and it takes a speech from Finlay Currie’s aged sage (Currie was one of those actors who turned up often in epic films, normally playing wise old characters and putting in minor but significant roles) to turn the matter. Currie’s character can see past the immediate self interests to the future envisaged by the late Emperor, but you can tell his is a dying voice with little place in Commodus’s world and during a later scene in the same location, by now a room of toadies, his absence is telling.

James Mason puts in a fine piece of work as Timonides, the philosopher freedman employed by Marcus Aurelius as his sparring partner in wit and words, and later throws in his lot with the German farmers. A scene in which he attempts to talk beaten foe Ballomar (John Ireland) into surrendering peacefully is brilliant. Ballomar, beaten and trapped in a cave, has little interest in giving up without a fight and would be far happier going down killing Romans. As Timonides tries to persuade the German warrior to give up this end in favour of accepting a farmer’s future, Ballomar tortures him with fire, knowing that a pained scream from the Greek philosopher will alert the guards and bring on his favoured fighter’s death. But Timonides doesn’t give up and refuses to cry out, a beautifully performed scene typical of Mann, who dotted his films with such moments in order to illustrate physical human sacrifice, and in the end it’s Ballomar who submits, so impressed and moved is he by his opponent’s strength of conviction.

The film’s main star was none of these great actors but in fact Sophia Loren, the towering Roman who in 1964 was named the most popular star among British audiences. Earning a cool million for her role and echoing the salary paid to Elizabeth Taylor for Cleopatra, it was Loren’s attachment to the project that turned Mann’s preferred male star, Charlton Heston, away. Having worked together on Mann’s previous Bronston epic, El Cid, Heston had endured enough of Loren’s fussy insistences that she be shot a certain way to capture her nose on camera at its best that he refused to do so again, opting instead for 55 Days at Peking (and as it happened suffering another torrid professional relationship with Ava Gardner). Personally, I’ve never felt Loren to be blessed with outstanding acting talent, but what she did have was presence, poise, grace and those longing, massive eyes, which were capable of conveying complete tragedy and make men melt. Cast against her was Stephen Boyd, best known at the time for playing the villain Messala in Ben-Hur. Over the years it’s become fashionable to blame Boyd for many of The Fall of Roman Empire’s ills, as though the decision to employ him as a substitute for Heston became its fateful tragedy as he simply wasn’t as good. True enough it’s difficult to argue against Heston as the ultimate casting choice for films of this type, but Boyd, given the tough role of playing the blue eyed good guy, the bloke we root for throughout as he battles vainly against massive odds, turns out to be marvellous, personally magnetic and selling wholly his character’s devotion to Loren’s Lucilla. Boyd would later claim that he was enamoured with Loren and it’s certainly the case in the film that the pair have great chemistry. As Commodus uses their love for each other as a lever in trying to get his own way, there’s a real believability about their efforts to make the most of their moments together.

And the stars just keep on coming. As the blind man Cleander, the man of dubious loyalties who performs the subtle, perfectly executed killing of Marcus Aurelius, Mel Ferrer plays him with absolute inscrutability, realising that audiences can tell a lot about a character through their eyes and when those eyes are dead there’s nothing to see. Anthony Quayle plays a gladiatorial confidante of Commodus with great conviction. One of the more decisive yet smaller tragedies of the film is his character’s complete loyalty to the young Emperor, the way he continually steps into harm’s way for him, a fact that has its fateful denouement late in the story. Hammer stalwart Andrew Keir is on hand as one of Livius’s generals, a man who remains steadfastly faithful right to the inevitably bitter end. If one performer gets short changed then it’s Omar Sharif as the Armenian king. Sharif is always watchable but there’s an entire film one could make that focuses on the events of the film purely from his perspective. What a fascinating exercise that would have been, the opportunity to witness ‘the fall’ from the point of view of a supporting character whose own motivations are on the periphery but come to matter. As it is, Sharif gets a handful of lines and a beautifully choreographed fight scene.

Almost 2,000 words into this piece and I’ve mentioned little about the plot, which I leave to you for your enjoyment. It’s a treat, on the surface the stuff of high melodrama but beneath that a mess of broiling machinations and the crushing weight of history. Throwaway bits of dialogue – check out the closing lines from George Murcell’s General, Victorinus – hint at the sweep of Roman policy and how it affects ordinary people, adding so much depth to the action and showing how deeply Mann understood the significance of the tale he was weaving. You don’t have to really swallow this stuff; there’s a great deal going on all the time, but it’s a stirring brew all the same. There’s a weight to the film’s most significant moment, the magnificently mounted funeral of Marcus Aurelius, where Livius hands the torch to Commodus, which effectively gives him the throne. Audiences can be forgiven for crying out at this stage; we all know where the film’s going with a nutjob like Commodus in charge. But it’s all been built up to by the preceding moments, as Timonides tries to find a scrap of paper that makes law the decision to crown Livius and learns that it doesn’t exist. Livius knows that if he seizes power at this point it will never be accepted and lead to civil war and therefore has no choice but to hand the Empire to Commodus, hoping for the best. Which of course, he doesn’t get. Again compare this with Gladiator, in which the hero Maximus loses everything as Commodus attempts to eliminate him. The tale of his bloody rise from the gladiatorial pits is well told, but it’s altogether less complicated than the story being weaved here, in which Livius acts not only from a position of relative strength but knows also he has to work against someone he considers to be a friend, adding dramatic heft to the film’s string of tragedies, both on a giant scale and at a personal level. I know which version I prefer.

It’s easy enough to see why this film failed. It’s gigantic, on any point you choose to consider, whether you’re marvelling at the forum set (which is staggering, no doubt about it) or being pummelled into sheer emotional submission at the sight of thousands of extras dressed in Roman soldiers’ uniforms lamenting the passing of Marcus Aurelius (sorry to return to it again and again, but it remains one of my favourite scenes of all time and makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up with each viewing). Whether you’re as impressed as I am or turned off by the capricious grand scale, you must appreciate the sheer human effort that went into it, the epic vision and scope of the piece. But it could only work if people went to see the thing and that didn’t happen. Perhaps the tastes of movie-goers had simply moved on. The absence of any element of Christianity (it is there, however, if you notice the talisman Timonides wears around his neck, but that’s another of the film’s clever little subtleties and adds quietly to its characterisation) removes an aspect that was writ large in many of the more successful films of this type, suggesting a link between stories that focused on ancient times and the religious sensibilities of viewers, and without it you’re left with a piece about a long dead empire that held little relevance for the majority.

One thing for certain is that The Fall of the Roman Empire is nobody’s idea of a bad film. If you haven’t before seen it, do so if only to make your jaw drop, to take in the last hurrah of a dying genre, a late example of the sort of movie they simply don’t make anymore because the cost if it doesn’t work is far too great. For me it’s a title that gets better each time, a brilliantly filmed labour of love that contains real heart. See for yourself the bit where provincial governors are assembled before Marcus Aurelius. Your focus is on the Emperor, his efforts to remember all their names, and so it should be because it’s funny and Alec Guinness’s face as he becomes more dumbfounded is a treat. But check out the costumes and bear in mind that someone took the time to design them as close as possible to the real garments these people would have been wearing if the scene had happened in reality. That takes some effort and as far as I’m concerned shows the care and attention that was lavished on the film’s production values.

The Fall of the Roman Empire: *****

It’s been a couple of weeks since I lasted posted here and my apologies for that. I’ve no good excuses; I’ve even been busy buying discs of films I intended to cover, watched them and then didn’t get around to doing the writing. It just wasn’t there I guess, the intent, and at times like that the worst thing I could probably do is get something down because the effort of having to do it – as opposed to wanting to – would have been clear. Hope this makes up for it. As you can probably tell I quite like this one…

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The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

When it’s on: Monday, 29 December (12.50 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

I’m not ashamed to admit that there are entire passages of The Glenn Miller Story that leave me with a big smile on my face, the whole sequence that runs from Miller ‘discovering’ his sound through to the beginning of the climactic war segment. The film focuses on the songs, those immortal big band tunes, and by this stage has established Miller as such a likeable presence that the sight of him finally making it and giving joy to the masses through his music is just an enormous pleasure.

The Glenn Miller story follows Miller (James Stewart) from his early days as a struggling trombonist, working from band to band whilst attempting to get his own arrangements noticed. His instrument moves in and out of pawn shops as his fortunes fluctuate, and whilst his talent as a musician is never in doubt his attempts to get recognised for his compositions fare less well. Miller has faith in himself, but knows he hasn’t yet hit upon the right sound and this eventually comes about as a combination of hard, painstaking work at the piano and a turn of fortune. In the meantime, he courts and marries Helen Burger (June Allyson), almost the perfect American wife – loving, endlessly supportive, the practical, financially savvy partner to his artist – and much of the film tracks their idealised relationship, and his use of her as a muse for such famous tracks as Pennsylvania 6-5000 and Little Brown Jug, whilst Helen herself comes up for the title of what will emerge as Moonlight Serenade. Incidentally, the film was nearly called Moonlight Serenade, and indeed carried this title in certain countries.

It’s lovely stuff, with the almost complete absence of tension compensated for with good music (I’m listening to Miller whilst writing these words) and Stewart’s heartwarming chemistry with Allyson. As a directorial project for Anthony Mann, it’s a departure. At the time, his collaboration with Stewart in a string of brilliant and gritty (for the time) Westerns was extremely fruitful, and it was the actor who persuaded him to sign up for The Glenn Miller Story, which turned into a major hit for Universal. Mann brought to the project his usual sense of economy, the film never dragging as the narrative moves seamlessly through Miller’s career. There are also some great moments. My favourite has Miller and his band playing In the Mood for injured American soldiers in Britain. It’s wartime; the bombs are still dropping and whilst the song plays a V-2 rocket soars overhead, then the engine cuts out, which means it’s about to drop. GIs duck or rush for cover, but Miller makes the band play on as the bomb explodes nearby, making a triumph of the music over destruction.

Visually, it’s as good as one might expect from a Mann film. It features fine use of Technicolor, most prominently in a scene where Miller and Helen go to see Louis Armstrong (appearing as himself, along with various other musicians from the big band era) play in a jazz club, a projector turning the performers into a kaleidoscope of colours to go with the freeform music.

Harry Morgan, in real life a good friend of Miller’s, co-stars as his best mate and pianist, Chummy. It’s Stewart’s film, though. Having the benefit of actually looking like Miller (a fact nicely teased out by the poster I chose for this entry), he went to the trouble of learning to play the trombone for his performance, although he was never skilled enough for the film and his scenes were dubbed by Joe Yukl, who would perform off-camera whilst Stewart’s correct hand movements gave the impression of authenticity.

The film builds to a poignant close, with its gentle scene of a heart quietly breaking, but music emerges as the triumph. It’s a really great picture.

The Glenn Miller Story: ****

The Far Country (1955)

The Far Country

When it’s on: Sunday, 20 January (12.30 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

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.

Randolph Scott in Badman's Territory

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.

James Stewart in The Man from Laramie

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: ****

The Man from Laramie (1955)

When it’s on: Sunday, 29 July (1.15 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

The more I watch James Stewart’s post-war output, most pertinently the work he did in the 1950s, the less doubt I’m in that this was a really fascinating and fertile period for him. A couple of well known Hitchcock films aside, his collaboration with Anthony Mann in a series of eight productions between 1950 and 1955 produced some amazing results. Of these, we can probably discount The Glenn Miller Story, a charming yarn that chimed more with the easy going Stewart from before World War II. The Westerns are the real draw. Stewart was stretched, with each entry going to greater lengths to subvert the wholesome image built up for him in previous decades. By The Man from Laramie, his last Mann Western, Stewart could enter as a blank page, a character with a shaded past, and it was never clear whether he would turn out to be good or bad.

As for Mann, the genre allowed him to take his noir sensibilities to the Old West. Whereas some directors created Westerns on grand canvases, all sprawling tales and noble deeds, Mann brought a tight storytelling mood to the table. The Man from Laramie is about complicated people struggling with moral dilemmas, often omitting right and wrong from their thinking. It’s set in New Mexico, a harsh and rocky landscape that seems to reflect the bleak outlooks of the characters. Neither does Mann show his narrative hand too early. We know Stewart’s character, Will Lockhart, is in Coronado for a reason, but it isn’t clear for a long time what that reason is, neither do we appreciate why he doesn’t heed the advice of almost every other character and high-tail it out of there.

Lockhart is the man from Laramie. He’s carrying supplies through Apache territory to Coronado and, on his way, comes across the decimated remains of a cavalry troop. The music and Lockhart’s desolate expression are the only clues that this means more to him than an anonymous group of dead horsemen, presumably a not uncommon sight at the time. Entering the town, he quickly falls foul of Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol) when he’s caught taking salt from the Waggoman lands. It’s an innocent mistake, but nobody’s prepared for Dave’s violent punishment, killing Lockhart’s mules, torching his wagons and for good measure lassoing and dragging him through a fire.

Stewart performed the stunt himself, allowing Mann to film the ordeal in close-up, and the pain on the actor’s face looks real enough. It isn’t the first time in the film that Lockhart is treated brutally by Dave. Later, he’ll have a bullet put through his hand from point blank range. In both instances, Stewart goes for an authentic reaction, whimpering and grimacing after his hand is mutilated. It’s a far cry from the ‘manly’ response to pain one found in earlier pictures, where such treatments were usually shrugged off. The effect is to show us the consequences of Dave’s sadism in as much detail as the censors would allow. Chillingly, Stewart’s war record suggests he might very well have based his acting on the real life horrors he witnessed.

Dave’s psychotic, the unworthy son and heir to Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp). Alec’s going blind, a neat metaphor to his attitude towards the nasty excesses of his offspring and the underhand trade of guns to Indians in which he’s involved. The real wildcard is Alec’s foreman, Vic (Arthur Kennedy). At first, we think Vic’s a good guy. He reins in Dave’s sadism, saving Lockhart from worse than his lasso punishment, and shows an unswerving loyalty to Alec. But his are murky morals. He’s loyal because he think Alec will favour him over Dave. When he eventually shoots Dave, he lets Alec believe Lockhart is responsible, though it’s a dilemma that plagues him. By the end, Vic’s in too deep, through a muddy mixture of avarice, chance and trying to do the right thing.

The dense plotting suggests a much longer film than The Man from Laramie’s 96 minutes, but it’s a testament to economic plotting and the quality of the acting. Mann lets his characters’ faces do the talking often, cutting away the layers of exposition that would emerge otherwise. It’s a great film, and a real shame that this was the last time Stewart and Mann worked together. Their relationship broke down over Mann’s refusal to direct Stewart in Night Passage, citing the film’s weak script and opting instead for Henry Fonda and The Tin Star.

The Man from Laramie: ****