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DVD SAVANT

The Far Country


The Far Country
Universal Home Video
1955 / color / 1:37 flat full frame / 97 min. / Street Date May 6, 2003 / 14.98
Starring James Stewart, Ruth Roman, Corinne Calvet, Walter Brennan, John McIntire, Jay C. Flippen, Harry Morgan, Steve Brodie, Connie Gilchrist, Robert J. Wilke, Chubby Johnson, Royal Dano, Jack Elam, Kathleen Freeman, Connie Van, Eugene Borden, John Doucette, Chuck Roberson
Cinematography William H. Daniels
Art Direction Alexander Golitzen, Bernard Herzbrun
Film Editor Russell Schoengarth
Original Music Henry Mancini, Milton Rosen, Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner
Written by Borden Chase
Produced by Aaron Rosenberg
Directed by Anthony Mann

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

If Borden Chase and Anthony Mann hadn't installed a kindergarten civics lesson as the central theme of The Far Country, it might be a classic Western. It probably is a classic anyway. As tightly written and directed as Winchester '73 and as beautiful in Technicolor as Bend of the River, it may be the least dated of the series. It has a wonderfully cynical villain in John McIntire's corrupt marshall, and a jaundiced view of free enterprise that matches that of last year's Gangs of New York. If it weren't for the insistence that hero Stewart's desire to mind his own business is a cardinal sin, The Far Country would be almost flawless.

Synopsis:

Jeff Webster (James Stewart) is a cattleman with a maladusted sense of his place in society. He leaves Seattle for Alaska with a boatload of cattle, but under technical arrest for murder, for killing two quitters on the trail. In Skagway, his herd is confiscated by a Roy Bean-like hanging judge named Gannon (John McIntire), a racketeer who controls the town with an iron fist. Crooked saloon owner Rhonda Castle (Ruth Roman) hires Jeff and his sidekick Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan) as trail hands to go to the just-begun hamlet of Dawson, but Jeff steals his own cattle back from Gannon at the same time. In Dawson, Jeff and Ben buy a claim and start pulling nuggets out of the river, but more trouble comes when Gannon and his thugs move in, stealing claims and again strong-arming the helpless good citizens, like Hash House owner Hominy (Connie Gilchirst), and Steve's other pal Rube Morris (Jay C. Flippen), who goes back to drinking. Always keeping things legal, Gannon laughingly says he'll hang Jeff the moment he steps back into U.S. territory, but Jeff and Ben have plans to sneak out of Dawson a different way. Can the terrorized townspeople convince Jeff to put the community's needs before his own?

By 1955, the Stewart/Mann collaboration was one of the coziest and profitable pairings in Hollywood. After Bend of the River, they made The Naked Spur at MGM, an excellent revenge story that some feel is the highlight of the series. Back at Universal, their biggest hit came in the non-Western The Glenn Miller Story, a musical biography that launched a mid-sixties revival in the genre (see The Eddy Duchin Story).  1

Although they continued to work together, Mann and Stewart made their last Western in 1955 for Columbia, a CinemaScope reworking of King Lear called The Man from Laramie.

The Far Country has a perfectly matched hero and villain. No longer a 'binary character', Jeff Webster and Marshall Gannon have almost nothing in common except a desire to succeed. Jeff has already undergone a Red River - inflected cattle drive from Wyoming, killing a pair of his drovers for attempted mutiny. Gannon, on the other hand, is a proto-gangster, a town strongman who takes advantage of the absence of appointed law to assume the role. The film takes pains to assure us that he can function in Canadian territory only because the Ottowa government hasn't been able to organize the Northwest Mounties quickly enough. But his status on U.S. soil is undetermined. 2

If Jeff is meant to represent honest big business having to get tough in the face of economic reality, the film is fairly accurate. When the law is corrupt and unfair, he goes around it. This paints a heroic picture of enterprise doing what it has to do in adverse and unfair conditions. Jeff has already placed his business success over human life, and perhaps rightly so, but the screenplay always keeps his choices very cleanly delineated - if selling his cattle to the corrupt spoilers in Dawson will earn more money than selling to the 'honest' folk, then it's the right thing to do.

All this reaches the level of entertainment in the interesting relationships between Webster, Gannon, and saloonkeeper Ronda Castle. Faced with an increasingly hostile and rigged system, Webster becomes cynical, willing to accept corruption if he can outwit it. Stealing his own cattle back is a 'justifiable' crime, and must have appealed to 50s viewers resentful of the IRS. The genial and always technically legal Gannon is a wonderful character, probably John McIntire's best this side of Psycho. Top-hatted and brimming with a pretense of official dignity, McIntire holds all the cards and hides nothing, laughing at the men he fleeces. He aquits Jeff for murder, but confiscates a fortune in cattle for a piddling misdemeanor. He always has a grin, inviting his victims to protest so they can be shot down. He's a completely honest, out-in-the-open crook, and as such he's perversely likeable.

Ruth Roman's gambling queen is another cynic with a grudge against people. Both she and Webster make a credo of not trusting people, especially where romance is concerned. Their dealings with one another have a constant streak of dishonesty - she extorts his help with her grubstake, he jeopardizes her caravan by bringing along his stolen herd of cattle. The difference between them is that she needs a corrupt situation, like Gannon's, to prosper. Webster's no saint, but he plays with a set of dirty rules only because the corrupt system forces him to. I'm certain Jeff Webster would be a hero to modern corporate weasels.

Webster's grudging isolation against other people is not presented as a neurosis - he's not sick with obsession like the hero of The Naked Spur. There's no treachery or betrayal in his background, unless we're to figure he's become so cynical for being spurned by one woman in his past. The story makes him rather unnecessarily ruthless in the pivotal avalanche scene. He's already broken his word to Ronda by dragging his cattle along, and now he allows the caravan to split up - him taking the long way, and Ronda the short cut under the dangerous cliffs. He's pigheaded about authority; when Ronda overrides his decision, he neglects to tell her his reason for taking the long route, and because of his attitude, she don't ask. He allows Ronda and her men to go in harm's way simply out of spite and pride.

Ronda's pack train is almost wiped out by a snow avalanche, and Webster doesn't even want to go back to see what's left of them. It's a disturbing situation for Western fans accustomed to having their conflicts oversimplified: without law and fair play, even good men turn selfish and cold. The scene is so ruthless, it almost doesn't work. Stewart is attracted to Ronda before and after the avalanche, so it's odd that he's so callous. He wasn't certain about the avalanche danger, but he was sure enough not to take the risk himself. It's an interesting moral situation, and one we all can identify with. Have you ever watched a disliked co-worker walk into trouble, purposely not offering a warning, and hoping something bad happens to them?  3

What makes The Far Country entertaining are the folksy relationships among the characters. Walter Brennan's ditzy sidekick Ben provides Webster's only source of sentimentality, lighting his pipe, etc.. But he has weaknesses that Jeff doesn't count on. The rest of the 'good' citizenry are a lumpen bunch of hicks easy to discount, and their social solidarity is a bit on the flat side. Jay C. Flippen's character, who goes on and off the bottle, is alogether too obvious and mechanical in conception. But there are other fun bits, like the New York-accented Connie Gilchrist, and the wonderful Kathleen Freeman with her broad smile. (spoiler) Third-billed Corinne Calvet is treated like a fool for most of the show - "Hey, Freckle-Face!" - only to become the woman Stewart jumps into a clinch with for the fade out, after Ruth Roman's character has an acute attack of BWGDTSTH.  4

Among the baddies is the toothily sinister Robert J. Wilke, of Night Passage. He also plays James Mason's loyal first officer in the upcoming 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Jack Elam is Gannon's number one deputy/enforcer. Stuntman turned actor Chuck Roberson wears a nasty makeup scar as Latigo. Like all the rest, he also gets shot down in feature after feature, most notably by Robert Mitchum in the superlative The Wonderful Country. This time around, John Doucette is a friendly miner, and Royal Dano is again under-utilized in a bit as a meek prospector.


Universal's DVD of The Far Country looks all right, but unexceptional. The nice color is supported by an adequate bit rate most of the time. The clear sound does justice to the Universal music department's patchwork job of cues (see the list of composers whose work was sampled, above).

Oddly, the 1952 Bend of the River, a flat academy film, carries a disclaimer saying it is altered from its original version to fit our televisions. It isn't, but The Far Country is, and it doesn't have a disclaimer. By 1955, practically all Hollywood features were formatted to be cropped to a wider screen of 1:85, and were projected anywhere between 1:66 and 2:1, depending on the theater. I always look at the blocks of text in the titles and credits to see if a film is meant to be cropped; The Far Country has a narrow, wide rectangle of credits that matte perfectly on a 16:9 television. Crop off the earlier Westerns, and the titles get chopped off too. The Far Country looks fine shown full frame at 1:37, although it's compositionally more focused at 1:78, and would have looked better with 16:9 enhancement.

The show has a trailer, and subtitles in French, English, and Spanish.

One of the folksier gags in The Far Country is the little bell hung from the horn of James Stewart's saddle. Maybe its constant ringing provides the reason for Jeff's social discontent. It rings right at the end, for the fade out. One expects Corrine Calvet to say, "Every time a bell rings, somebody Jeff Webster has shot gets his wings."


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Far Country rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 8, 2003


Footnotes:

1. The Glenn Miller Story has also been cited as the last Hollywood film shot in the old 3-Strip Technicolor process. Eastman had perfected its three-emulsions-on-one-register a couple of years before. To stay in the business, Technicolor adapted - making its three b&w matrices from the Eastman negative, and going on from there in the flexible, brilliant Technicolor process, proved a winning combination for the next twenty years. The Far Country was probably much easier and inexpensive to shoot than the earlier Tech shows with their giant, unwieldy 3-Strip cameras, and has more natural color as well.
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2. It makes sense for the story to clarify its position on Canadian law 'n order, to assure full cooperation for the filming up in Alberta. The film is so historically specific about corruption in the U.S., territory, that I'm surprised Universal also didn't find a way to assure us that robber boss Gannon wasn't some kind of aberration. The upshot of the film is that the west was wild from thieving corruption, plain and simple, and that such conditions are the norm! In the context of ever-more conservative Westerns, this makes The Far Country downright subversive.
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3. It's very similar to the great scene in Sam Fuller's The Steel Helmet where Gene Evans allows another soldier to examine the dead body of a comrade, without telling him the North Koreans may have booby-trapped it. Evans has already established a rotten relationship with the officer in charge, bridling at his authority, and when he lets the corpse be disturbed without volunteering his expertise, he's saying, "Okay, don't listen to me. See what happens to you." Both Gene Evans' Sgt. Zack and James Stewart's Jeff Webster place personal ego before human lives.
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4. Bad Western Girl Dies To Save The Hero. Usually Mexican, but here Ruth Roman is dark-haired in contrast to Calvet's blonde locks, so she'll do.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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