Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Borden Chase
Starring: James Stewart, Ruth Roman, Corinne Calvet, Walter Brennan, John McIntire, Jay C. Flippen
Running Time: 97 min
BBFC Certificate: U
James Stewart had a hugely successful career in the 30s and early 40s largely making comedies and other heart-warming fare, such as You Can’t Take it With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Philadelphia Story. However, when WWII broke out he was the first major American star to enlist and went on to become the highest-ranking actor in military history.
Those years in the Air Force, fighting for his country, changed him. He came back to acting in 1946 with It’s a Wonderful Life, which is darker than many remember, though coming out of years of warfare many found it too sentimental and it was a commercial flop and received mixed reviews. Not long after that then he began to seek out much more troubled and flawed characters to match the change in him and the general public. Two key directors helped him best make this transition, beginning the next, even more successful phase in the actor’s career. Those directors were Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann. Stewart’s films made with Hitchcock are well-known and well-loved, whereas the majority of his films with Mann are not quite as well-remembered but almost equally as highly regarded, particularly the five westerns they made together, beginning with Winchester ‘73, which was a huge success on release in 1950. Seven popular and largely acclaimed films followed and the pair were due to make Night Passage together too in 1957, but Mann didn’t like the script and he and Stewart fell out, never to work together again.
Arrow Academy are releasing one of the later Mann/Stewart collaborations on Blu-ray, The Far Country, made in 1954. I got hold of a copy to see if it matched up to the other of their westerns I’d seen (all of them other than The Naked Spur which is unfortunately still unavailable in the UK).
The Far Country sees Stewart play Jeff Webster, a cowboy who’s bringing back a herd of cattle to sell to help raise enough money for him and his best friend Ben (Walter Brennan) to get a ranch together and settle down. However, he runs into trouble when he hits Skagway, a border town in Seattle run by the money-grabbing boss/judge Gannon (John McIntire). Although Gannon chooses not to hang Jeff for the murders he was accused of (it turns out they were trying to steal his cattle) he does take all of his cows, leaving Jeff penniless. Angry, but undeterred, Jeff and Ben head to Dawson city over the Canadian border to dig for gold instead. Along the way, Jeff can’t resist stealing back his cattle though and Gannon does his best to get revenge, despite Jeff being in Canadian territory. Gannon also starts to extend his greedy reach into Dawson, turning it from the safe, friendly haven it was for dreamers seeking gold, into a dangerous town filled with violence and disreputable behaviour.
Helping bring the latter to Dawson is Ronda (Ruth Roman), an ambitious woman who wants to get rich off the settlers in the area by opening a rowdy saloon. Jeff takes a shine to Ronda, who seems interested in him too, though the stubbornness and ego of both of them tend to get in the way of any romance. Adding further problems to their potential relationship is Renee (Corinne Calvet), a French-Canadian woman who Jeff likes to call ‘freckle-face’ due to her youthful demeanour. She is very much a woman though and sharper than she first seems, saving money in her own devious but less objectionable ways. She likes Jeff a lot, but he doesn’t seem all that interested in her from a romantic standpoint, at least not at first. So a love-triangle sets its stall among the greed and selfish-nature of these people fighting amongst themselves during the early years of American capitalism.
This idea of selfishness is the main crux of the film. Among the money-grabbing, you have Jeff, who may seem like an honourable man, but in fact doesn’t really feel the need to help others, only himself. Even when Ronda and a group of wannabe gold-miners get crushed under an avalanche it takes some convincing by Ben and Renee to get him to go and help rescue any survivors. There are many other instances when his priorities are put into question, making for a fairly blunt central message. However, some of the other anti-capitalist aspects of the film, driven by other characters, are better integrated.
Also, the script can’t be berated too much, despite any laboured messages, because it does a mighty fine job in other aspects. The film is loaded with characters and plot threads, without an obvious clear line to follow. Jeff, in fact, takes a spectator’s seat to a lot of the goings-on. However, writer Borden Chase and director Mann do a fantastic job of juggling everything without ever feeling like they’re taking too much on or dragging out the running time. The various strands all fit the theme in some ways too, so never feel disparate or unwarranted.
Like all of Mann’s westerns with Stewart, the film is also admirably dark, tough and pitched slightly apart from your bog-standard oaters. On top of the frosty setting (leading many to call the film a ‘northern’ rather than a western), the hero isn’t a particularly good man. In fact, practically every character has their flaws. Even the ‘innocent’ Renee steals gold dust from strangers by banging into them on purpose and sweeping up the leftovers at the end of the night. Not only does this give the film more edge, it allows for numerous arcs to develop over the course of the running time, making for a satisfying overall narrative.
The relationship between Jeff and Ben is very important in the film and also beautifully done. Their talk of getting a ranch and living together for the rest of their days can be read as suggesting a homosexual relationship between the pair, but I think it’s meant to represent the strong bond of friendship between men that is key to a lot of westerns. Either way, the use of the little bell on Jeff’s saddle is a nice touch in symbolising their closeness and a couple of the conversations between the pair are touching without lurching into sentimentality.
Stewart is great as always, proving he’s as good at troubled individuals as he is at playing the loveable everyman. The cast contains a number of fine character actors beside him, most of whom were known best for their western roles, such as Walter Brennan, John McIntire, Jay C. Flippen and Harry Morgan. I must admit I wasn’t a big fan of Calvet though, as Renee. Her accent is a bit too comically thick and she can be a little annoying when set against the tougher, more grizzled characters that surround her.
All in all then, it’s another fine collaboration between Mann and Stewart. Its anti-greed message perhaps could have been toned down a little, but on the whole it’s a rich and engrossing yarn with a notably unsentimental edge.
The Far Country is out now on Blu-Ray, released by Arrow Academy. Interestingly, it’s available in 2 aspect ratios (1.85:1 and 2.00:1) as it has been debated as to which is the ‘true’ intended version. I opted for the wider choice as I usually prefer that style of image. The picture isn’t the sharpest I’ve seen, it must be said. As well as a softness I noticed a little ‘haloing’ around some characters once or twice where it had been graded. So it’s not the best transfer I’ve ever seen, but there’s no noticeable damage or dirt. I didn’t notice any issues with the audio, which came through clearly.
There are plenty of special features included in the package:
- Two presentations of The Far Country in both original aspect ratios of 1.85:1 and 2.00:1
– Brand new 4K restoration from the original film elements by Arrow Films
– Original 1.0 stereo audio
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– Limited edition booklet with new writing on the film by Philip Kemp and original reviews
– Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Graham Humphreys
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1
– New audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin
– American Frontiers: Anthony Mann at Universal, an all-new, feature-length documentary with Mann biographer Alan K. Rode, western author C. Courtney Joyner, script supervisor Michael Preece, and critics Michael Schlesinger and Rob Word
– Mann of the West, a newly filmed appraisal of Far Country and the westerns of Anthony Mann by the critic Kim Newman
– Image gallery
– Original trailer
– High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation of the film in the alternate original aspect ratio of 2.00:1
Adrian Martin’s commentary is excellent as expected. He’s always a reliable contributor, with well-researched content delivered clearly without any lulls. The ‘American Frontiers’ documentary is great too, though I wouldn’t call a little over half-an-hour ‘feature-length’, as advertised, so I’m not sure if it’s been cut down since being announced. Regardless of the length, it’s an illuminating whistle-stop tour of Mann and Stewart’s work together. Kim Newman’s appraisal is solid too. Like Martin, I’m always pleased to see his name crop up on lists of special features.
* Please note – although the publicity stills are in black-and-white, the film is in colour.