"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Far Country (Universal, 1955)

 










Classic Mann/Stewart







The Far Country is a classic Anthony Mann/James Stewart Western for Universal - ‘Universal International’, as it was now called, rather tautologically, or perhaps bathetically. It was fourth in the Mann/Stewart series after Winchester ’73, Bend of the River and The Naked Spur and it’s almost as good as any of them.
 

This one contains all the usual suspects. Borden Chase once more did an excellent screenplay, Aaron Rosenberg produced again, William Daniels was the cameraman, and Jay C Flippen, Chubby Johnson, Harry Morgan and Royal Dano all appear. And we are back in the snowy north-west. So, you might think, it’s Bend of the River 2?

Well, yes, we are back in the North West, as for Bend on the River, but this time we go over the border from Skagway into Canada. It’s 1896 (but looks 1870s – they all do). So it’s a ‘cold’ Western, not a desert/saguaro one, and has plenty of the fine mountain scenery that Mann loved. Stewart is back, with same hat and same horse (this time Pie features a little bell on the saddle-horn and at one point in the script Stewart calls him by name). Stewart is guiding again, as in Bend, but this time for posh Ruth Roman. He’s a misanthropic loner, a self-reliant egoist aiming to make enough money for a ranch in Utah – or at least that’s what his partner Brennan keeps on about. Stewart doesn’t join in the enthusiasm. Of course he has a 'past'. We aren't told what it was but at one point when Ruth Roman says, "I trusted a man once", he replies, "Quite a coincidence. I trusted a woman." At any rate, now he is unwilling to relate. He stands off; he lives permanently in the far country.

Yep, Walter Brennan is his garrulous sidekick this time. He had rather taken out a patent on that role. Here he sidekicks Stewart as he sidekicked Wayne several times (Red River, Rio Bravo and so on). Where Millard Mitchell in Winchester ‘73 was quiet and competent, here Brennan is gabby and foolish. This gives a lighter tone to this movie than the others have. There are more attempts at humor in the script. "Alaska is most difficult for the medical profession," the doctor tells Stewart. "Then why did you come here?" The doc answers, "Because I'm going to Vienna". This almost absurdist dialogue does raise a wry smile among us, if not a chuckle. Still, such humor as we find is a cold, frosty one with an undercurrent of menace. It is Mann after all.

The best actor, though, is John McIntire, better even than Stewart this time, and he is the master of this hard humor. Lead baddy, he is the vicious, smiling, sadistic mayor-cum-hanging judge Gannon, on Judge Roy Bean lines. "I'm gonna like you," he smiles to Stewart. "I'm gonna hang you but I'm gonna like you." His silk hat was a costuming master-stroke: it gives faux-respectability to a corrupt, grasping and murderous non-gentleman. Like Dan Duryea in Winchester, Arthur Kennedy in Bend and Robert Ryan in Spur, McIntire is charming as well as deadly, and intelligent too. It’s a wonderful portrayal. John McIntire was always very, very good in Westerns. He elevated mediocre ones and made good ones (like The Far Country) great.

Robert J Wilke, stock thin-mustached badman from every TV Western you can name from The Lone Ranger to Lassie and countless big-screen Westerns (especially B ones) too, is McIntire’s two-gunned, sneering henchman. Great. And the wonderful Jack Elam makes an appearance as deputy. He even lasts till the final reel (he was known as One-Reel Jack for his propensity for being shot to death in the early part of Westerns). Corinne Calvet is hokey as the freckly French-Canadian tomboy in a woolen hat for whom Stewart is supposed, ludicrously, to fall. But Ruth Roman is beautiful, Ava Gardner-classy. Corinne doesn’t stand a chance. There are three splendid elderly saloon ‘gals’ who sing to the new piano. It’s worth buying the DVD just for them.

The movie was beautifully shot in Technicolor, much of it on the Columbia ice fields and in the Jasper National Park in Alberta. Mann was getting the taste for rugged scenery as backdrop for rugged stories. Landscapes and natural features, especially dramatic and inhospitable ones, were becoming one of his trademarks. However, there are more artifical settings and use of sound stages in The Far Country than there were before. Nearly all of The Naked Spur was shot on location and is natural; there are many more studio shots in this one. It seems more a classic 50s Western because of that, but perhaps slightly less Mannish.
 
Pie. See the bell?

The very good music was by an uncredited Henry Mancini, among others.

It looks like the same stern wheeler steamer from Bend in the River.

Stewart trained Pie to walk down the street alone, the little bell ringing. Stewart called the horse "one of the best co-stars I ever had." The sorrel appeared as Stewart's horse in 17 Westerns, and Stewart developed a close relationship with him. Pie would often "act for the cameras when they were rolling. He was a ham of a horse,” said Stewart. When Pie died in 1970, Stewart arranged to have the horse buried at his California ranch.

At one point, Stewart, injured in the hand, holds his Winchester across it with his left hand. I think he was practicing for The Man from Laramie.
 

Selfish, even ruthless Jimmy is out for himself and refuses to help the persecuted miners. There’s an interesting relationship with McIntire: you get the feeling that the Stewart character more than half admires his bullying ways. They are two scoundrels trying to out-fox each other. Of course we know that finally, but only at the end of the tale, Jimmy will see the error of his ways and show solidarity by facing down McIntire and settling down with the gal, forgetting dreams of Utah ranches. But this in fact makes him the blandest of the Anthony Mann heroes. We were kinda getting used to the manic, borderline-psychotic man with a mission.

The final shoot-out doesn’t have the epic grandeur of the other movies’ finales. It is unballetic, even sordid, with the antagonists crawling in the freezing mud. It was probably the inspiration for the one in McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

Still, this is another very good Mann/Stewart Western, not in the Man from Laramie class, I don’t think, or as good as Winchester ‘73 but very entertaining and at least the equal of Bend of the River and The Naked Spur. I watched it again last night, just for you, so that I could review it while it was still vivid in my mind. You see the sacrifices I make for you, dear reader? Forced to watch a Mann/Stewart Western when I had so many other better things to do, like…, er, well…


 

2 comments:

  1. This movie wouldn't be too bad if the script kept the action in Skagway, Alaska, where it was pretty lawless during the Klondike gold rush. But Hollywood is so full of itself here it just superimposes U.S. history onto Canada. The wild west was in Canada, too? Right? Nope.

    it's pretty horrific how they depict the Canadian citizenry of Dawson City, Yukon electing a marshal with a tin star to enforce the law! What the hell? That never happened anywhere in the Canadian west, the Mounties quite effectively policed western Canada for two decades before the Klondike gold rush.

    Marshals and cowboy gunfighters? That was America's history of the old west, it's rather insulting for Canadians to see that crazy depiction of the Yukon. The Mounties were in the Yukon in large numbers before and during the Klondike gold rush and strictly enforced the law - no gunfighters or gunfights. Set this movie in Tombstone and you're good to go. Instead let's just superimpose American wild west history onto Canada. Hollywood knew its viewers were too stupid to know the difference.

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    1. Hi G,
      Thanks for your comment. I see your point. Still, many Westerns were set north (or South) of the border, and Canadian/Mexican-set movies can still be Westerns. And I don't think we can expect historical accuracy from a Western movie: thery're not supposed to be documentaries. I'm sure you're right that many viewers in the world (in Europe, say) didn't distinguish between the US and Canada; it was all "North America" to them. Anyway, I try to put such questions aside and enjoy Anthony Mann and James Stewart at their best!
      Best wishes,
      Jeff

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