BEND OF THE RIVER
(director: Anthony Mann; screenwriters: Borden Chase/based on the novel “Bend of the Snake” by William Gulick; cinematographer: Irving Glassberg; editor: Russell F. Schoengarth; music: Hans J. Salter; cast: James Stewart (Glyn McLyntock), Arthur Kennedy (Emerson Cole), Julie Adams (Laura Baile), Rock Hudson (Trey Wilson), Howard Petrie (Tom Hendricks, Owner of River Queen & Portland Palace Saloon), Lori Nelson (Marjie Baile), Jay C. Flippen (Jeremy Baile), Jack Lambert (Red), Harry Morgan (Shorty), Royal Dano (Long Tom), Chubby Johnson (Cap’n Mello, Riverboat River Queen), Stepin Fetchit (Adam), Frances Bavier (Mrs. Prentiss); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Frank Clever/Aaron Rosenberg; Universal-International; 1952)
“One of the greatest Westerns ever.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
One of the greatest Westerns ever. It’s directed by Anthony Mann (“Winchester ’73″/”The Naked Spur”/”The Man From Laramie”/”Man of the West”) the least celebrated but one of the most talented Western directors of the 1950s, who was in his prime during the golden age for westerns. In 1958 Jean-Luc Godard gushed over Mann’s “Man of the West” and praised him to the skies for reinventing the Western. Many French film critics called Mann “The Virgil of the West.” Mann was known as a great visual filmmaker, not afraid to have the dark side of his main characters show and not afraid to be mythic.
The masterful screenplay is written by Borden Chase from Bill Gulick’s “Bend of the Snake.” It casts James Stewart, Mann’s favorite cowboy hero, as a wagon train guide named Glyn McLyntock, who in 1847 takes a hundred decent farm folks fed up with the violence in Missouri to the Oregon Territory to find their Eden. What Stewart’s searching for is a new identity as a farmer, in his shadowy past he was a Missouri border raider. It’s a secret that haunts him, and the reformed gunfighter still has the scars from a rope around his neck from a vigilante mob that tried to hang him. Mann has the Stewart character working overtime for his redemption, as he’s constantly being tested to see if he can fit in with a peaceful society. It’s an overwhelmingly intense, strongly moral grounded and tangibly symbolic psychological tale that is filled with stunning majestic vistas, easygoing comedy and sparkling action sequences. It has a lot on its plate, including Stepin Fetchit doing his good-hearted stereotype comedy shtick in a cameo. It’s the kind of hardboiled Western that questions if its hero has to be all good, and if that’s realistic. Stewart takes on a hero’s role that demands more than his familiar aw-shucks I’m the good guy wearing the white hat, as he’s asked to be a former outlaw who has seen the light and gone straight because of his own inner drive to do so but still reacts violently when he’s overcome with revenge for those venal types who do him wrong.
While leading his wagon party to Portland, Oregon, Glyn McLyntock saves a suspected horse thief, Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy), from a lynch mob. It turns out Cole is a kindred spirit, also a former Missouri border raider but unknown to Glyn. The two begin a friendship, as the amiable and charming Cole rides along but makes it clear he’s no farmer but is heading to California to look for gold. That night the wagon train is attacked by a small group of Shoshone Indians who put an arrow in the shoulder of the pretty Laura Baile (Julie Adams), the older daughter of the wagon train’s steadfast leader Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen). Cole follows the brave Glyn into the outlying wilderness to search for the Indians before they can attack again; after saving Glyn from being knifed to death, the two kill off the remaining 5 Indians.
In Portland, the settlers receive a warm welcome from the leading citizens and have the good-natured ornery riverboat captain (Chubby Johnson) remove the arrow from Laura. But she’s told she’ll have to stay in Portland for a month to recover while the settlers go up in the hills to begin farming. The settlers pay in advance the local saloon owner Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie) for their food supply needed to hold them through the winter; the supplier promises to send the shipment before a month is out by riverboat. When the shipment doesn’t arrive and the settlers are on the verge of starvation, Jeremy and Glyn come down from the mountain by horse (which takes a week) and find the town has gone crazy because of gold strikes and the prices have skyrocketed. Greed has overtaken Hendricks and he turns out to be a chiseler, not willing to carry out his end of the bargain. The handsome flashy gambler Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson) and Cole side with the farmers when Hendricks tries to stop them. They help bring the food supply up the river with the riverboat, but Hendricks and his henchmen catch up with them and there’s a shootout that takes care of the chiseler. But when Cole learns the starving gold-miners in the hills are willing to pay a fortune for the food supply, he deserts the farmers and his girlfriend Laura to side with the gold-miners. When Glyn is left by Cole without a gun to die on the top of Mount Hood, his old feelings of animosity come back and he goes on foot after Cole spurred on like an avenging angel and single-handedly fights off the surly bunch of gold-miners taking the farmer’s food supply. It comes down in the end to Glyn fighting Cole in the Snake River, where Cole is swept away by the river to his doom and Glyn finds redemption in the river as his past sins are washed clean. The farmer accepts him into the community, forgiving his past sins, and Glyn ends up with the sweet homespun Laura. Jeremy, in the end, has to eat his words about criminals never being able to change. He often used the saying “One bad apple destroys the rest of the barrel,” but now says he was wrong–“apples are not people.” The film paralleled the lives of Stewart and Kennedy throughout, with the outcome showing that Stewart had the capacity to change but Kennedy didn’t.
Henry Morgan and Jack Lambert are cast as gold-miner thugs, while Lori Nelson plays the sweet younger sister of Adams who snags the cocky but soft-hearted Rock.
REVIEWED ON 11/6/2006 GRADE: A+