Bend of the River (1952) was the second Western that Anthony Mann directed with James Stewart in the lead. Though pretty optimistic and colorful in its tone, the film, co-starring Rock Hudson and Arthur Kennedy, is a worthy addition to the series of top class psychological Westerns that Mann and Stewart made together in the ’50s.
Jeremy Baile(Jay C. Flippen): That kind can’t change. When an apple’s rotten, there’s nothing you can do except throw it away or it will spoil the whole barrel.
Glyn McLyntock(James Stewart): Well, there’s a difference between men and apples.From Bend of the River (1952)
That’s the pivotal theme of “Bend of the River (1952)”: are bad men unredeemable like bad apples?; whether men, who had gone bad, can actually change and become good again and could be accepted back into the society; or should they be discarded by the civilized society like rotten apples?. The answer to this question, like the films of Director Anthony Mann itself, is pretty complex and layered. Mann and writer, Borden Chase, presents a character study of two men who could be mirror images of each other – the men were once bad, but are now trying to go straight – and through them they establish that a direct yes\no answer to this pivotal question is impossible; and it ultimately depends on the men, their character, their endurance, their moral fiber. The two men in this story through which Mann and Chase conduct their ‘social experiment’ are Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart) and Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy). Both Glyn and Cole used to be raiders on the Missouri-Kansas border. But Glyn is now remorseful of his past actions and seek to atone for his sins by leading a wagon train of settlers to Oregon. He intends to join them and hope to start a new life among them when they settle the wild countryside. While Glyn is checking the trail ahead, he runs into Cole, who is about to be lynched for stealing a horse. Glyn saves Cole, and it’s never made clear whether Cole had actually stolen the horse or not; that does not matter, because as far as Glyn is concerned all lynchings are wrong. Though Cole and Glyn had heard of each other during their ‘raiding’ days, they have never met, but each one knows what that the other is and they never pursue the subject of their past history beyond some sly remarks. Since Glyn is on a path of ‘recovery,’ he believes that Cole could also be trusted to change his ways, so he invites him to the settlers camp; Cole definitely comes across a friendly , affable and charming and he also seem to find favor with Laura Baile (Julie Adams), the most beautiful & eligible gal in the wagon train.
Soon enough, Cole gets an opportunity to repay his debt to Glyn when the camp is attacked by some Shoshone Indians. Rather than wait for the Indians to come to them, Glyn and Cole show their prowess as cunning raiders by sneaking into Shoshone camp in the darkness and killing all the tribesmen. In the middle of the raid, Cole saves Glyn’s life by shooting down an Indian who was just about to kill Glyn. Now that Cole has proven his worth, Glyn wholeheartedly accepts him and asks him join the train to Oregon. Laura, who was wounded by an arrow in the Indian attack, is now in love with Cole- much to the chagrin of Laura’s father, Jeremy Baile, the leader of the settlers; he does not trust Cole and does not believe that a man can change from bad to good. When they reach Portland, Oregon, They meet a professional gambler named Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson) who falls in love with Laura’s sister, Marjie (Lori Nelson). While the party of settlers, including Glyn, travel into the wilderness by boat, Laura remains in Portland to recover from her wounds. Cole also leaves the party saying that he wants to go to California to find gold. The settlers establish a settlement in the wilderness after making arrangements with a man named Tom Hendricks for the supplies they need for the winter to be sent on later. But the supplies never arrive and Glyn and Jeremy ride back to Portland to find out what happened.
When they reach Portland, they find the town to be unusually crowded; they realize that a gold rush is going on, and it has pushed up the prices of food items & supplies almost five fold. They are also surprised to see that Cole is still in town, and that he and Laura are now a couple, and they are working for Hendricks. When Glyn confronts Hendricks regarding their supplies, the latter refuses to sell them items at the previously agreed price and threatens to cancel the deal. The heated argument between the two leads to a shootout. Cole and Trey both side with McLyntock and they help him load the necessary supplies onto the boat and escape. When they are pursued, McLyntock sets up an ambush. Hendricks and some of his gang are killed, and the rest are driven off.
As they begin the perilous journey over the mountain to the settlement, they meet a bunch of hungry miners, who have also been tricked out of their food by Hendricks. Cole wants to accept the miners’ offer of $100,000 for the supplies, but Jeremy refuses to sell. Soon after, the miners revolt against Glyn, and although Cole saves Glyn, Jeremy’s leg is injured. The next day, Cole, who cannot resist the other miners’ money, beats up Glyn, leaves him horseless and abducts Jeremy, Laura and the supplies. As Glyn tenaciously tracks the wagons on foot, Cole grows more depraved. Laura frees a horse for Glyn to find, and two hours outside of the mining camp, Glyn attacks. Desperate, Cole beats Jeremy and then shoots at Trey when the gambler defends the older man. Cole takes off for the mining camp to round up help, and before Glyn, Laura, Trey and Jeremy can get the supplies back to the settlers, Cole and his men appear. But Cole and his men are beaten off in a climactic gunfight at a river. Glyn fights and kills Cole, and the current takes his body away. At the end, they reach the settlement with the supplies and it is apparent that Laura and Glyn are now a couple. Jeremy sees the scars around Glyn’s neck and, realizing that his friend is also a former border raider, admits that he was wrong about the ability of men to reform; there is a difference between apples and men after all.
In this second Western collaboration between director, Anthony Mann and star, James Stewart, we can really feel Mann’s Western aesthetic fully forming. There is an effortlessness, control and cohesion here that I thought the duo’s first collaboration, “Winchester’73,” however great that film was, was lacking. This one is also episodic, but it is less episodic than the first one, and has a narrative continuum and propulsive energy that the first one lacked. And to top it off, this film is in color, so the unique topography of Mann’s westerns- lush green valleys, rocky mountains, dense forests, roaring rivers, crowded trade posts and waystations – comes across vividly. Of course, this is not as dark or deep as the other Westerns from this duo. As evidenced in the film’s ‘happy ending,’ this is a more cheerful and optimistic film; maybe the most optimistic Western Mann has ever made. It’s also a much simpler film, less intense, though it’s not simplistic; it still grapples with some serious, dark themes, but the characters are more lighter. Stewart’s Glyn maybe a man atoning for past sins, but he is not a tortured soul nor is he angry and resentful like Howard Kemp from “The Naked Spur.” He is friendly, outgoing and also trusting, which turns out to be his weakness. I guess, of all the Mann Westerns, this is the film where Stewart’s natural charm and aw-shucks persona is most pronounced. Glyn’s chief motivation in this film is survival, rather than revenge. He is ought to prove to himself and to others that he can and has changed his character for the better.
Still, Stewart gets enough opportunities to display his dark side- like the time when he confronts Hendricks; or when the hired workers revolt, leading to Jeremy getting injured; and the time when he becomes really unhinged and is about to stab a man with a knife. But the best sequence is his monologue when Cole betrays him and abandons him in the middle of the wilderness- “You’ll be seein’ me. Every time you bed down for the night, you’ll look back in the darkness and wonder if I’m there. And some night I will be. You’ll be seein’ me.”; it’s a high point of the movie and Stewart’s performance. The words are great and Stewart’s delivery of it make it even greater. Stewart considered this to be his most physically demanding role and you can see why. The film was shot mostly on location (maybe some of the night scenes and the Portland town scenes where shot on the studio lot) in various places in Oregon; and Stewart gets to do some heavy physical stuff like riding, shooting, driving wagons and fighting in cold river water.
Arthur Kennedy’s Emerson Cole is a much more interesting character than Glyn. Kennedy’s bad guys are always kind of insidious; as seen in “The Man from Laramie” as well, he plays villains who are friendly and courteous on the surface, but weak and corrupt inside. Cole is also cut from the same cloth- he smiles and smooth-talks his way through most of the film, and one gets a sense that like Glyn he is also reformed. But some of his character twists in the film seems improbable: he saves Glyn’s life at least three time during the course of the film, but then finally succumbs to his dark side and betray his friend. And this after he had sided with Glyn in Portland, where Cole was leading a comfortable life as Hendricks’ ‘pit-boss’ with Laura by his side; that seemed to be the most improbable character twist for me, more than his final betrayal. I think Mann wanted to present a contrast between Glyn and Cole, who are mirror images of each other (their final fight in the river is almost like Glyn grappling with his dark side), and that the man who is more morally steadfast winning out in the end. The only problem here is that Glyn comes across as too robotic and complacent in his moral steadfastness; it looks like nothing can turn him around from the path he has chosen for himself. It would have been better for the film if there was genuine suspense with regards to which among the two will succumb to their dark side. Since a ‘nice guy’ actor like James Stewart is cast as Glyn, and we never find any chinks in his moral armor, we are never doubt that he will betray the ’cause.’ It would have been different if a more ‘rowdy’ Western star like Burt Lancaster or Kirk Douglas had been cast in the role. Kennedy’s Cole comes across as more human of the two characters, and Kennedy is brilliant in the role; he is able to convey the double-nature of the character very well. Even when he is all charm and smiles, we do not fully believe his intentions are noble. Mann relies a lot on Kennedy’s performance to smoothen the inconsistencies in the character and make the film work.
The supporting cast is made up of Rock Hudson, who is pretty good in a role that’s again not so well defined. He is introduced to us as this dashing gambler, who sides with Stewart in his fight against Hendricks, but when Kennedy kicks out Stewart and takes over the supply wagons, he becomes a meek follower of Kennedy. This was Rock Hudson before he became a star with Douglas Sirk melodramas., and even in such a small role he oozes star charisma. The women in the film played by Julie Adams and Lori Nelson are just stock Western female characters who has nothing much to do, with Adams’ Laura fulfilling the role of the typical Anthony Mann heroine- she belongs to the bad guy first before she becomes the good guy’s girl. Mann regulars like Jay C. Flippen and Harry Morgan round out the cast. Like John Ford, Mann had his own stock company of actors whom he hired again and again for his films. The screenplay written by Borden Chase has similarities with his previous Western classic, “Red River (1948).”- both films beginning with wagon trains, Indian attacks and then finally a mutiny; the line that Stewart says to Kennedy after the latter’s mutiny is very similar to what John Wayne tells Montgomery Clift in “Red River.” Chase does well to bring together a lot of contrasting, colorful characters, and a lot of it is very well written, except for some of the glitches in characterization that I already mentioned. Anyway, Mann is such a strong visual director that he can overcome a lot of the issues in the screenplay through his exquisite filmmaking. Mann relies less on dialogue and more on visuals to move the plot forward. “Bend of the River” may not be Mann’s best, but it’s a worthy addition to his (Western) film cannon.