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Bend of the River

by Glenn Erickson Apr 13, 2019

The Anthony Mann – James Stewart crowd-pleaser now comes to Region A Blu-ray. With its bright Technicolor hues, it’s the wagon train movie fans remember first after Red River. Stewart is a good guy with a dark background who tries to atone by helping some settlers. The thorn in his side is an unreformed former outlaw played by Arthur Kennedy in high style. Also shining bright is everyone’s favorite Universal contract player, Julie (Julia) Adams.


Bend of the River
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1952 / Color / 1:37 flat Academy / 91 min. / Street Date April 16, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
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

 

About a year ago I reviewed an All-Region German import disc of Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River. As this domestic disc will likely be more accessible to western fans in the U.S., I’ve taken the opportunity to re-write the review, and compare the two discs. Also, I’m warming up to do some work with my favorite Major Dundee, and this will get me back into a Go West frame of mind.

Westerns were big business in the 1950s, and saved many an actor’s career. Director Anthony Mann’s first teaming with James Stewart Winchester ’73 was a huge success, guaranteeing that they’d work together again. Mann directed two films for MGM and a third for Paramount before returning to Universal and his partnership with the new free-agent actor Stewart, a collaboration that would last for five years and eight films in toto. 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.

 

Bend of the River was a dazzler in 1952. It 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 scenery on view is also impressive — somebody hauled all those horses and wagons up almost beyond the timber line. The movie cleaned up at the box office.

At the mid-century mark, writer Borden Chase was the go-to guy for top tier westerns. He again utilizes the ‘binary hero’ structural concept. This time the hero’s past is just as tainted as the villain’s. The difference between them 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 Glyn will have no future with the settlers when the intolerant Jeremy finds out about their notorious past in Kansas.

 

Many critics think this is the best of the Mann/Stewart Westerns. It’s definitely not, but it certainly is entertaining. It also has an impressively efficient story. Borden Chase’s take on the Wagon Train saga recycles quite a few motifs from his earlier Red River for Howard Hawks. 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. Western moviemakers never offended an audience by championing the myth that agrarian values are better than city corruption. The presence of other newcomers in the Oregon Territory is dismissed with a curt lack of empathy:

“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.

True-blue hero McLyntock is 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 seemingly created all the violent villains and ne’er-do-wells needed for gunslinging westerns. (BTW, the most accurate and exciting movie by far about ‘Bleeding Kansas’ is Ang Lee’s highly recommended Ride with the Devil.) Glyn McLyntock isn’t as neurotic as his other Mann heroes, but he does bear a definite Mark of Cain: his cravat hides a rope burn scar from when he himself was almost hanged by vigilantes. Underneath his charm is a quiet desperation. He craves to be accepted by the settlers, yet many 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.

 

Yes, McLyntock has a ‘dark side.’ His guilty nature gets a strong workout, as does his touchy relationship with his fellow former Kansas raider, Arthur Kennedy’s Emerson Cole. Note that Emerson shares a name with Cole Younger, the infamous real-life outlaw and raider. The film’s best all-round actor, Kennedy fronts a joking attitude that suggests complexities beyond the traditional Black Hat / White Hat clich&eacute. At first Cole is a fine ally, 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 cashier in Hendricks’ casino. Glyn knows that Laura is being corrupted as soon as he sees Cole put his arm around her.

Cole is just the man to help steal back the settler’s 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.

The man to read about Anthony Mann is the scholar Jim Kitses. In his insightful study of key ‘fifties western directors Horizons West, Kitses points out Mann’s ‘hierarchical’ rating of the leading protagonists. In the exciting escape from Portland, Emerson Cole spontaneously supports Glyn with his gun, along with the younger, less experienced Trey Wilson. Mann shows them forming up in a precise series of cuts — first Emerson leaps alongside Glyn, instinctively facing in the opposite direction. 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.

Bend of the River becomes a Red River in miniature when the wagons head up into the mountains. Circumstances force Glyn to press-gang his teamsters, so he should hardly be surprised when they 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. Jeremy gets to decide who’s good and who’s bad, and only his allies have even a chance of falling into the ‘good’ category.

 

What about the women?  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. Realistically 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 are clear of 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. Universal would do little to further the careers of their contract actresses. Both ladies would later play the femme lead in her own Universal Gill Man movie.

The cumbersome, expensive old 3-Strip Technicolor process forced Mann and Universal to economize elsewhere. Visitors to Universal Studios should be able to figure out where the little Portland dock and the tree-challenged, very un-Oregonian hill behind were filmed. That pond is now the location of the ‘Jaws’ rubber shark featured in the studio tour. (Is the shark still there?  My last visit was 20 years ago.) 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.

Along for the ride is stock villain Jack Lambert (Kiss Me Deadly) as a moronic mutineer. With him is Henry Morgan, who was an interesting bad guy only in films noir, but soon became a frequent Stewart sidekick. Royal Dano (Johnny Guitar, Man of the West) wastes his talent playing yet another weak-willed simpleton.

The colorful steamboat Captain (Chubby Morgan) 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. In one of his last film roles, Stepin’ Fetchit plays the boat’s first mate, Adam. 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 likely thought they were being generous in giving so much screen time to the 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 story development 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, getting ready for the winter. 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 founding their new home. The new homestead is already established. Jeremy now 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 somewhat bogus transition tricks. Comparing Jeremy’s prediction – projection to a flashback, he reasoned that it’s a cheat because it equates talking about a thing with doing a thing. 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. Do we really want to go through all that?”


The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Bend of the River looks like the exact same transfer source as the previously reviewed German Blu-ray, so one’s purchase decision should be based on availability and extras.

The transfer is colorful and bright, but as has been pointed on online, is not fully restored. The 1952 picture is an original 3-Strip Technicolor production, which normally requires an expensive digital effort for a full restoration. Due to the high expense, only top Technicolor titles merit this treatment. This is why hundreds of films shot in Technicolor have presentation issues today.

To keep making prints for reissue and TV, studios converted their Technicolor films to Eastmancolor by combining the color separations in an optical printer. Most Tech movies are mastered to video from these Eastman composites. 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 perfectly? Many pictures fared extremely well, and others less so.

Bend of the River’s composite only rates a B for quality. Many closer shots look terrific but just as many wider shots and transition scenes have color fringing around objects, often a slight fringe of red against the sky. It’s really noticeable only on a large monitor, yet once seen, it sticks out like a mis-registered magazine illustration. Many viewers will not detect the problem, yet the observant online zealots accusing the studios of culture crimes have a point too. It’s not exactly fair to expect a company to spend ten times what a title can earn, to restore it to full brilliance. (Unless it’s MY favorite movie, of course. Let’s be reasonable.)

The audio fares well. This particular ‘big sky’ theme is just okay. 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.

Exclusive to Kino is a fine audio commentary by Toby Roan, who tells us exactly which Hans Salter cues were recycled for The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Toby nicely places Bend of the River in the context of its director and main star. He neatly sketches the careers of its actors and gives us a rundown of the entire history of Universal Studios, from Laemmle, to Universal-International to MCA. In explaining the locations, Toby talks about that roads that had to be bulldozed in national parks (!) and says that the riverboat we see was really a tugboat with a studio makeover job.

Several western coming attractions are present. The one for Bend is a little purplish, but the corresponding trailer for The Wonderful Country is a beauty.

Universal’s This Island Earth is coming up on Blu-ray for the first time in Region A, licensed to an outside label. We hope the restorers have put extra effort into its presentation!

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Bend of the River
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good + / –
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 9, 2019
(5982bend)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.