The second Anthony Mann / James Stewart western displays excellent direction and impressive Technicolor location photography high in the high mountains of Oregon. A matinee staple, it delivers everything — Stewart’s mostly good hero and Arthur Kennedy’s mostly bad hero spar and tangle and eventually fight to the death near the timber line. Handsome Rock Hudson receives prime billing for flashing his ‘Dazzledent’ smile.
Bend of the River
Explosive Media (Germany)
1952 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 91 min. / Meuterei am Schlangenfuss, Where the River Bends / Street Date August 10, 2017 / Amazon.de EUR 17,99
Starring: James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Julia Adams, Rock Hudson, Lori Nelson, Jay C. Flippen, Stepin’ Fetchit, Henry Morgan, Royal Dano, Chubby Johnson, Frances Bavier, Howard Petrie.
Cinematography: Irving Glassberg
Film Editor: Russell Schoengarth
Original Music: Hans J. Salter
Written by Borden Chase from the novel Bend of the Snake by Bill Gulick
Produced by Aaron Rosenberg
Directed by Anthony Mann
After the big success of Winchester ’73 Anthony Mann directed two films for MGM and a third for Paramount before returning to Universal and his partnership with the new free-agent actor James Stewart, a collaboration that would last for five years and eight films in toto. Westerns were big business in the 1950s, and saved many an actor’s career. After floundering a bit finding his mature commercial groove, Stewart hit pay dirt with his new, psychologically stressed western hero. He wasn’t the laconic, funny westerner from 1939’s Destry Rides Again, nor did he use the folksy dialogue style that he’d adopt for his later radio show, The Six Shooter. Stewart’s deal gave him percentage points; it was Universal’s job to provide the Technicolor location shoots and other production frills that would mark the series.
1952’s Bend of the River makes sure to throw in a little bit of everything — a mild romance, a bitter rivalry, a ‘build the nation’ pioneer trek, and a ruthless revenge motif. There’s action in every reel and, courtesy of screenwriter Borden Chase, a lightweight moral to help us separate the good guys from the bad guys. The movie cleaned up at the box office.
Writer Chase again utilizes 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 efficiently expressed key theme.
Two former Kansas raiders have found contrasting destinies in the Northwest frontier. 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 while the wounded Laura Baile (Julie Adams) recovers from an arrow wound. Glyn accompanies the rest of settlers upriver and helps them establish their new homestead. Come fall, Glyn and Laura’s father Jeremy (Jay C. Flippen) return to Portland and find out why the crucial supplies they’ve paid for haven’t been shipped: businessman Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie) has welched on the deal, because a sudden Gold Rush has caused a huge inflation, and he sees a big profit selling the provisions elsewhere. With the complicity of Emerson, riverboat Captain Mello (Chubby Johnson) and gambler Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson), Glyn forcibly seizes the settlers’ goods. The small group fights off Hendricks, but the wagon train undergoes a mutiny when Cole and his ne’er-do-well teamsters decide to steal the supplies and sell them to some nearby miners at a huge profit. Emerson thinks what he’s doing is entirely reasonable: he argues that he and Glyn will have no future with the settlers when the intolerant Jeremy finds out about their notorious past in Kansas.
Some critics think this is the best of the Mann/Stewart Westerns. It’s definitely not, but it certainly has an efficient story. Borden Chase’s take on the Wagon Train saga recycles quite a few motifs from his earlier script for Howard Hawks’ Red River. But its conflict is nicely grounded in economic reality, contrasting the utopian aims of the stalwart settlers with the money-grubbing and treachery to be be found in a town struck by Gold Rush Fever. In other words, western moviemakers can’t lose by championing the myth that agrarian values are better than city corruption. The fact that the other newcomers to the Oregon Territory is dismissed with a curt, ”Our food and provisions aren’t going to a bunch of crazy miners!”
Mann’s fluent visual sense uses compositions and blocking to assign different degrees of worth to various actions and characters. The film’s key theme is almost offensively judgmental: men are like apples in a barrel, and one rotten apple can cause all the rest to go bad as well. The saving grace to this very wholesome equation is the hero’s tainted past. The door is left open to allow us to think Mann might be subverting the scripts narrow-minded morality tale.
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. The lawless Kansas-Missouri chaos during and just after the Civil War has consistently provided violent villains for gunslinging westerns. (BTW, the most accurate and exciting movie by far about ‘Bleeding Kansas’ is Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil.) Glyn McLyntock isn’t as neurotic as his other Mann heroes, but he does bear his Mark of Cain. He wears a cravat to hide a rope burn scar from an attempted hanging he barely survived. Underneath’s Glyn’s charm is a quiet desperation, as if he can’t shake off the panic of that rope tightening. He wants the settlers’ acceptance, yet some of the skills he uses to secure their survival come straight from his experience as a border raider. To escape from Portland, he sets the tents in the street on fire, much the same way that Quantrill’s irregulars burned down most of Lawrence, Kansas.
The introduction of Glyn McLyntock’s ‘dark side’ is beautifully handled, and so is his touchy relationship with his fellow former Kansas raider, Arthur Kennedy’s Emerson Cole. Note that he shares a name with Cole Younger, the infamous outlaw and raider. The film’s best all-round actor, Kennedy’s joking character suggests complexities beyond the traditional Black Hat / White Hat cliché. At first Cole is a fine ally for the settlers, with his talent for gunplay. But his actions soon turn questionable. While the young Laura is recovering in Portland, he wastes no time introducing her to an ‘indecent’ job as a clerk in Hendrick’s casino. Glyn shares the view that Laura is being corrupted, as soon as Cole puts his arm around her.
Cole is 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. One of Mann’s most charming rogues, he seems an inspiration for the colorful Boetticher/Kennedy villains in the later Randolph Scott westerns known as the Ranown Cycle.
In his insightful study of key ‘fifties western directors Horizons West, Jim Kitses points out Mann’s ‘hierarchical’ rating of the leading protagonists. In the exciting escape from Portland, both Emerson Cole and the younger, less experienced Trey Wilson spontaneously support Glyn with their guns. Mann shows them forming up in a precise series of cuts — first Emerson leaps alongside Glyn, instinctively facing in opposite directions. Then Trey joins them and they back out as a formidable trio. In a later gun battle, we see how the three men relate to violence. The trio has ambushed Hendrick’s henchmen, who soon retreat. Stewart backs off first, trying to minimize the killing. Trey questions Glyn’s order to cease fire, but he does indeed stop. Emerson ignores the order and merrily blasts away at the retreating foe. Guns define the man: Glyn has limits, and Trey is still looking for guidelines. When Emerson Cole starts killing, there’s no restraining him.
The wagon trek up the mountain becomes a Red River in miniature. Circumstances force Glyn to press-gang his teamsters, so he should hardly be surprised when they rebel mutiny. Left behind, he bitterly swears that he will dog the rebels like a one-man army. The picture’s rigid moralizing shows when the unforgiving Jeremy continues to denounce Glyn as another ‘rotten apple.’ The only proof that will convince Jeremy is Glyn’s violent revenge. The combat is like a baptism, for when Glyn emerges, his atonement is complete. Jeremy decides that Apples aren’t like Men after all.
Gee, thanks, Pops, that’s generous of you. He gets to decide who’s good and who’s bad, and only Jeremy’s allies even have a chance of falling into the ‘good’ category.
The female characters don’t share in Mann and Chase’s visual characterization schemes. In another moment lifted from Red River, Julie (Julia) Adams’ Laura is skewered by an Indian arrow in a manner identical to that suffered by Joanne Dru. Technically speaking, Laura’s stay in the Sin-halls of Portland should represent a fall from grace — does being ‘Emerson Cole’s girl’ mean that they are sleeping together? As this is an uptight Hollywood western, the answer is probably, no. Laura is changed little from the experience, and reverts back to a Daddy’s Girl as soon as they escape the big town. The secondary female lead played by contractee Lori Nelson is even more of a cipher, present just to give Rock Hudson’s Trey an added motivation for helping Glyn. Each actress would later play the femme lead in her own Universal Gill Man movie.
Bend of the River was filmed in the cumbersome, expensive old 3-Strip Technicolor process, which mandated economizing elsewhere. Visitors to Universal Studios should be able to figure out that the little Portland dock and the hill behind, is now the set for the ‘Jaws’ rubber shark on the studio tour. But key scenes were indeed filmed near the timber line on Oregon’s snowy Mt. Hood, with the wagons lumbering over the punishing-looking ice and rocks. It’s likely that the real cost-cutting came about through Anthony Mann’s clear direction, which gets the maximum out of every camera setup.
Also along for the ride is stock villain Jack Lambert (Kiss Me Deadly) as a moronic mutineer. With him is Henry Morgan, who frankly was never an interesting bad guy but soon became a frequent Stewart sidekick. Royal Dano (Johnny Guitar, Man of the West) wastes his talent playing yet another weak-willed simpleton.
Chubby Morgan is the colorful steamboat Captain who presumably won’t have a job when he gets back to Portland — unless, with that rat Hendricks dead, he can now appropriate the Mississippi-style stern wheeler as his own. Stepin’ Fetchit plays the boat’s first mate, Adam. It’s one of his last film roles. He and the Captain appear to be pals and he’s more or less treated with respect, yet he still delivers his lines in a cretinous drawl. Is it offensive? Probably. The conservative filmmakers probably thought they were being generous in giving so much screen time to a black actor, but Captain Mello is the only person who addresses Adam directly: every other white character ignores him, as if he’s invisible. Don’t want to upset those censors in the South.
An amusing narrative construction.
Being the leader of the pioneers, Jay C. Flippen’s Jeremy is the one to offer inspirational remarks about freedom and building a future in the wilderness. At about the 34-minute mark, the film’s continuity pulls a slick ‘cinematic ellipse,’ skipping over months of plot in a few seconds. It sticks out because it’s a radical editorial construction in the middle of an otherwise standard narrative. Standing on the deck of the steamboat, Jeremy speaks of what will happen in the months ahead: ”It’ll be hard work: felling trees, tilling the soil, etcetera. But we’ll build our settlement.” As Jeremy speaks, we see a brief montage of construction and crop-planting. Then we’re suddenly several months in the future. We never saw the boat unloading its cargo, or the settlers finding their new home. The new homestead is already established. Jeremy says, “That was hard work, all right. Now we have to go get those supplies we bought, or we’ll never survive the winter!” The montage has skipped ‘the dull pioneer stuff’ to rush ahead to more action conflict.
Borden Chase had already used this transitional gimmick in Howard Hawks’ Red River: John Wayne skips over ten years of building up his ranch in Red River with a simple speech. Wayne has two lousy cows, and thirty seconds later he has thousands: “That was hard work, all right. What are we going to do with all this beef?” A child actor is suddenly replaced by Montgomery Clift. Hawks recycled the skip-ten-years trick from Red River (along with an entire story framework) for his later Land of the Pharaohs. Ten years are bridged with just a single voiceover and montage showing the building of the pyramids. Another child actor has grown up to become actor Dewey Martin.
The late Robert S. Birchard loved the audacity of these transitions even though he thought them rather bogus: comparing Jeremy’s prediction – projection to a flashback, he reasoned that it’s a cheat because it equates talking about a thing with doing it. I’ve always imagined an alternate version where, after the homestead-building montage, the film dissolves back to the boat deck. Nothing has happened. Jeremy sighs: “Yeah, that sounds like a lot of work, all right. I guess we better get busy.”
Explosive Media’s Blu-ray of Bend of the River is a German import item of a title not domestically available in HD. It’s encoded All-Region; the only caveat is that the audio defers to German, making one opt for English in the menu. All we have here is a 2003 DVD, which pales in comparison.
The 1952 picture is an original 3-Strip Technicolor production, so prints and video transfers must all be sourced from an Eastmancolor composite negative made after the original release. As we’ve seen time and again, the quality of 3-Strip restorations depends on how well the comp negative was combined — do the three color matrices align well?
Alignment is excellent on close-ups, but I noticed a scattering of shots that are a bit off, with color fringing around objects. The picture is satisfactory but not ideal, even though it’s much better than the DVD. The locations on the Sacramento River and Oregon’s Mt. Hood are fairly spectacular. The back-lot mock up for early Portland shows a tree-challenged, very un-Oregonian hill in the background.
Curiously, the trailer supplied as an extra (‘Bonus’) is overall sharper and clearer. It looks like a textless negative was transferred, with all the text overlays redone at the video level.
The audio fares well. This particular ‘big sky’ theme is just okay, and the rest of the music credited to Hans J. Salter sounds like generic Universal cues that could be used in anything from war movies to horror pictures.
Besides that good-looking trailer, Explosive Media gives us galleries of poster artwork and photos and something called ‘deutsche TV-Synchronisation. I’m not sure what it is . . . a TV version censored for audio or picture? Note, 1.14.18: Correspondent Bram Blijleven generously offers an explanation:
“Hello — I read the review of Bend of the River on your excellent site. I can solve the mystery of the ‘deutsche TV-Synchronisation.’ It is something you see a lot on German Blu-rays. In Germany it is common to dub movies in German. When movies were first shown on TV sometimes new dubs were made with different actors speaking the voices than was the case in the original dub made for the release in cinemas. Maybe the original dub was considered to old-fashioned, or contained language not suitable for all ages. ‘Deutsche Synchronisation’ is German for dubbed version so in this case the TV version of the dubbed movie is included on the Blu Ray. Sometimes the TV version is also edited to make the movie suitable for all ages. — Regards, Bram Blijleven. (Verstuurd vanaf mijn iPad)”
Couldn’t resist the i-Pad signoff … thank you, Mr. Blijleven.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Bend of the River
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good + / –
Sound: Very good
Supplements: Trailer, image gallery, German TV synchronization
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English and German (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 12, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson