Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Anthony Mann / James Stewart team followed up the hugely successful
Winchester '73 with the
same producer, writer, and the addition of Technicolor and high mountain locations. Chase's
taut story packs a new kind of action into every reel, while retaining the 'binary hero'
structural concept. This time the hero's past is just as tainted as the villain's, and
what makes them different becomes the film's simplistic, but beautifully realized, theme.
While escorting a wagon train to Portland, Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart) saves
Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from a lynching, and Cole helps Glyn fight off some attacking
Indians. Cole hangs around Portland with the wounded Laura Baile (Julie Adams) while Glyn takes
the rest of settlers upriver. Come fall, Glyn and Laura's father Jeremy (Jay C. Flippen) return
to Portland to find out why their supplies haven't arrived, and discover that, with the inflation of
the Gold Rush, businessman Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie) has welched on the deal. With the
complicity of riverboat Captain Mello (Chubby Johnson), Emerson and gambler Trey Wilson (Rock
Hudson), Glyn forcibly takes the provisions the settlers need to survive the winter. The small
group fights off Hendricks, but when Cole and the teamsters decide to sell the supplies to
some nearby miners at a huge profit, the wagon train undergoes a mutiny. Emerson's reasoning: both
he and Glyn have notorious pasts as border raiders in Kansas, and Emerson thinks they'll both
be ostracized as soon as the settlers find out.
Some critics think this is the best of the Mann/Stewart Westerns. It's definitely not, but it
certainly has an
efficient script. Borden Chase's take on the Wagon Train story is nicely rooted in economic
principles, with his stalwart settlers and their utopian aims contrasted with the moneygrubbing
and treachery to be be found in Portland (take that, Geoffrey!) and among the miners. Economic
madness tempts a crook who could have gone straight, but Mann's visual discrimination assigns a
different degree of worth to every character we see. In simplified genre terms, men are like a
barrel of apples, with some rotten ones that might cause them all to go bad. The saving grace to
Mann's approach to this very wholesome-sounding story, is the neurotic edge he gives the hero.
Stewart's McLyntock is true blue, naturally, but he's the first Mann hero to have a villainous
past as a thief and a murderer, albeit in the lawless days of the Kansas raiders (something about
Yanks and Rebs burning towns and committing murder with the excuse of the Civil War behind them).
He wears a cravat to hide a rope burn scar from an attempted hanging he barely
survived. The character has a nice tone of desperation, as if he can't shake off the panic of that
rope tightening. Glyn McLyntock hopes the settlers will accept him, yet when he's
committing criminal acts to secure their survival, he can't keep his past from showing.
Kennedy's Emerson Cole is extremely interesting, a valuable helper precisely because he is a
sneaky opportunist equally experienced in gunplay and mayhem. But his actions are questionable
from the start, While the young Laura is recovering in Portland, he seduces her into an
appreciation of gambling and high living. He's just the man to help Glyn steal back the
provisions, but the temptation of an easy fortune is too much for him. His excuse for mutiny,
that the settlers are too rigid to truly accept ex-renegades, is yet another opportunistic
evasion, but it has a taint of cynical truth. He's one of
Mann's most charming rogues, and seems an inspiration for the colorful Boetticher/Kennedy villains
in the later Randolph Scott Ranown cycle of Westerns.
In the exciting escape from Portland, Glyn's gun is backed by Emerson, and Rock Hudson's Trey Wilson
as well. Whenever there's a fight, Stewart backs off first, while Emerson keeps merrily blasting
away at the retreating foe. Trey asks 'Why?', to Glyn's order to stop, but he does indeed stop. When
Cole starts killing, there's no restraining him.
(spoiler) The wagon trek up the mountain becomes a Red River in miniature, with Glyn left behind, only
to swear revenge and dog the mutineers like a one-man army. Circumstances force Glyn to
press-gang his teamsters, so he should hardly be surprised when they resent him. In the somewhat rigid
moralizing of the picture, settler Jeremy is all set to classify Glyn as another rotten apple.
revenger takes back the train by killing Emerson in the river. The combat is like a
baptism, for when Glyn emerges, his atonement is complete, and Jeremy decides that Apples aren't
like Men after all.
Gee, thanks, Pops, that's generous of you. Is the implication that to be truly
virtuous, we have to kill the villain inside ourselves? That construction doesn't allow for the idea
that we all have capacities for Good and Evil, that are an inseparable part of our natures.
Bend of the River (known as Where the River Bends in the U.K., presumably to avoid
confusion with Sanders of the River) was shot in the old 3-Strip Technicolor. Visitors to Universal
Studios should be able to figure out that the little river setting with its dock, and the hill behind,
is now the set for the 'Jaws' rubber shark on the studio tour. But much of the show is indeed
shot near the timberline on some very snowy peaks, with the wagons doing impressive maneuvers
on the ice and across the punishing-looking rocks.
Julie (Julia) Adams' character is left somewhat behind in the plot: she gets Joanne Dru-d with
in a situation identical to Red River, and would seem to be swayed from the straight and
narrow by her stay in the Sin-halls of Portland. But she shows no resultant complexity or growth
from the experience, turning back to a Daddy's girl as soon as they escape the big town. There's
a secondary female lead played by contractee Lori Nelson (Revenge of the Creature); she's
just there to provide woo-bait for Rock Hudson, and to give him motivation for helping Glyn.
Neither are at all developed.
Jay C. Flippen has to carry the Aesop's Fables moralizing this time, and doesn't do as well
as in his adorable bit in Winchester '73. His is the speech that ellipses months of plot
in a few seconds, just the way John Wayne skipped over ten years in Red River. "It'll be hard
work", says Flippen on the boat, "But we'll build our settlement". We see a montage of construction,
then suddenly we jump ahead a couple of seasons, and Flippen says, "That was good work, but now
we have to go get those supplies we bought, or we'll never survive the winter!" I've always wanted
to see an alternate version where, after the construction montage, we return to the boat deck (thereby
properly closing the flash-forward) to hear Flippen say, "Yeah, that's a lot of work, all right.
Let's not and say we did." (Cut to boat turning back to Portland). 1
Also along for the ride is stock villain Jack Lambert
(Kiss Me Deadly) as a moronic mutineer,
accompanied by Henry Morgan, who frankly was never very interesting as a bad guy - but became a
frequent Stewart sidekick later on. Royal Dano (Johnny Guitar, Man of the West)
wastes his talent doing his usual weak-willed simpleton. Chubby Morgan is a colorful boat captain
who presumably won't have a job when he gets back to Portland - unless, with its owner dead, he
can just appropriate his Mississippi-style stern wheeler. Stepin' Fetchit plays the boat's
first mate (not its cabin boy, as unfortunately written on the DVD liner notes), one of his last
film roles and only his fourth since before the war. Divorced from the context of racist 'black
humor', his performance is splendid; but again, he's underdeveloped, and used only as a foil for
the Captain. At least he and the Captain appear to be pals.
Universal's DVD of Bend of the River has a well-compressed image that suffers only when
the composite Techicolor scenes are misaligned, which is unfortunately fairly frequent, especially
in outdoor footage. The picture will cut from a perfect medium shot to a grainy and indistinct
wide image with the magenta register out of whack, ever so slightly. Perhaps on a small screen it's
not a problem, but it's a little disappointing on a large monitor.
The mono sound is sharp and clear, which is good for the typical mishmosh of Universal action cues that seem the
same whether the film is a Western or a monster movie. The cheering of the stereotyped happy
settlers sounds fine too.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bend of the River rates:
Movie: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 8, 2003
1. Howard Hawks used his
Red River skip-ten-years trick identically in his similarly-structured Land of the
Pharaohs, to show the building of the pyramids. Like Montgomery Clift in the Western, Dewey
Martin grows up across the montage.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson