Did star James Stewart and director Anthony Mann corner the market on upscale ‘A’ ’50s westerns? This beauty sends Stewart, Ruth Roman and Corrine Calvet on a breezy trek over a Canadian glacier, with Walter Brennan as a folksy, ditsy sidekick — not very original but endearing. John McIntire saves the day as a charmingly malevolent self-appointed Judge Roy Bean-type swindler and murderer — he’s so hilariously evil, even Stewart’s character is amused. The special edition has two aspect ratio versions, a full commentary and two film history featurette-docus.
The Far Country
1955 / color / 1:88 + 1:2 widescreen / 97 min. / Street Date November 12, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
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
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
The director-star collaboration of Anthony Mann and James Stewart was one of the coziest and profitable pairings in Hollywood. Mann became an in-demand first rank director and Stewart extended his range as a bankable star, capable of launching projects ranging from goofy comedies to gritty westerns. On their first film Winchester ’73 Stewart also cut himself in on the profits, as stars and agents grew more powerful than studios. The duo jumped between Universal, MGM and Columbia. 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 gave new life to the genre, as in The Eddy Duchin Story and The Five Pennies.
The scholar Jim Kitses added greatly to western genre criticism when he compared and contrasted the films of Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah in his book Horizons West. All three use ‘binary’ characters, with the key hero and villain sharing complementary qualities. Stewart’s first Mann protagonists were driven obsessives, good men under so much stress that they seemed to be suffering from a mental disorder. They resolved their psychological issues by neutralizing the villains, as if exorcising personal flaws. That seems deeply American in spirit: violence is a sure cure for what ails ya.
Writer Borden Chase was the primary man on all three of the Mann/Stewart westerns at Universal. Winchester ’73 is a tightly-written and tough-minded western version of La ronde, substituting a collector’s rifle for sex (and an STD). Their next picture Bend of the River simplifies a pioneers vs. profiteers story into a kindergarten civics lesson, and in The Naked Spur Stewart’s character emerges from a vengeful rage with wisdom and humility.
The Far Country is a little more chaotic in its presentation of a lawless and corrupt west overrun by violent opportunists. It has a wonderfully cynical villain in John McIntire’s corrupt villain, and a jaundiced view of free enterprise that seems too ‘subversive’ for James Stewart’s temperament — he and Anthony Mann had not long before made a film chastising ‘silly’ shrimp fisherman for opposing the first off-shore oil rigs. The Far Country insists that the selfish (and rather ruthless) Stewart character stop minding his own business and turn violent to rid the Yukon of crooked thieves. The show’s production values are rock solid. It delivers the impressive authentic location of Alberta, Canada, with real glaciers on view.
Due to the cutthroat nature of business in the wild west, cattleman Jeff Webster (James Stewart) has 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 gold rush town with an iron fist. When crooked saloon owner Rhonda Castle (Ruth Roman) hires Jeff and his sidekick Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan) as trail hands to trek to the just-begun mining hamlet of Dawson, Jeff takes the initiative to steal 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, only to land back in hot water when Gannon and his thugs move in, strong-arming the miners and stealing claims. Good citizens like the Hash House proprietress Hominy (Connie Gilchirst) are helpless. Steve’s other pal Rube Morris (Jay C. Flippen) goes back to drinking. Always keeping things legal, Gannon laughingly says he’ll hang Jeff the moment he steps back into U.S. territory. Jeff and Ben have plans to sneak out of Dawson with their gold, dodging both the needy locals and the corrupt Gannon’s gunmen. Can the terrorized townspeople convince Jeff to put the community’s needs before his own?
The Far Country has a perfectly matched hero and villain. In no way forming a binary character, Jeff Webster and Gannon have almost nothing in common except a desire to succeed. Jeff has already weathered a Red River – like cattle drive from Wyoming, killing a pair of his drovers for attempted mutiny. The proto-gangster Gannon takes advantage of the absence of appointed government to assume the role of crooked law boss. The film takes pains to assure us that he can function in Canadian territory only because distant Ottowa hasn’t had enough time to organize the Northwest Mounted police in the area.
Gannon’s status on U.S. soil seems to be as a renegade judge, exceeding his authority to loot and terrorize the locals. The movie’s message is that the West was (is?) wild from thieving corruption, plain and simple, and that such conditions are the norm! But don’t confuse this for a liberal or subversive statement. For its hero, The Far Country invents an independent businessman, one not limited by the law or unfair ‘regulation.’
Is Jeff Webster meant to represent honest big business having to get tough in the face of economic reality? When the law is corrupt and unfair, he goes around it. This paints a heroic picture of free 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. Webster plays with a set of dirty rules only because the corrupt system forces him to. I’m certain he would be a hero to modern corporate weasels.
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 pragmatic 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 his sheriff in Psycho. Brimming with a pretense of official dignity, the top-hatted Gannon holds all the cards. He parades his corruption out in the open, laughing at the men he fleeces. He aquits Jeff for murder, but then confiscates a fortune in cattle for a piddling misdemeanor. His mocking grin invites his victims to protest so they can be shot down. Gannon’s a transparent, baldfaced 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 anyone, especially where romance is concerned. Their dealings with one another carry a streak of dishonesty — she extorts his help with her grubstake, and he jeopardizes her caravan by bringing along his stolen herd of cattle. What makes her more like Gannon is that she also requires corruption to prosper.
Jeff Webster’s grudging, aggressive isolation from other people is not presented as a neurosis or obsession. There’s no particular treachery or betrayal outlined in his background, beyond the mention of a love affair gone bad. Webster is pigheaded over points of authority, and becomes unnecessarily ruthless in the trek to Dawson. 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 shortcut under dangerous cliffs. When Ronda overrides his decision, he neglects to tell her his reason for taking the long route, and because of his attitude, she doesn’t ask. He allows Ronda and her men to go in harm’s way simply out of spite: ‘If you don’t bow to my authority, I won’t be responsible for you.’
Webster is strongly attracted to Ronda, yet he’s callously indifferent about her fate after the avalanche. He doesn’t even want to go back to see what’s left of Ronda’s pack train. It’s an interesting moral situation, and a common one. Have you ever allowed a disliked co-worker to walk into trouble, purposely not offering a warning, and secretly hoping something bad happens to them?
The Far Country’s other relationships are much more conventional. Walter Brennan’s ditzy sidekick Ben provides Jeff Webster’s main dose of sentimentality, lighting his pipe, etc.. But Ben has weaknesses that Jeff doesn’t count on. 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. Just the same, the ‘good’ citizenry are treated as a lumpen bunch of hicks. Their social solidarity is completely undependable — they’re like the colorful-but-disposable ‘little people’ from Frank Capra’s ’30s pictures, the ones who have big hearts, but will also form a mob for a run on the bank. It’s more than a little insulting that they’re so helpless without the guidance of a charismatic leader Like Jeff.
(spoilers) This is still a ‘fifties movie written by the conservative Borden Chase, so some adjustment may be needed for the state of gender enlightenment on view. Third-billed Corinne Calvet is treated like a foolish child for most of the show — Jeff calls her “Hey, Freckle-Face!” She then becomes the woman Stewart jumps into a clinch with for the fade out, after Ruth Roman’s character suffers an acute attack of Bad Girl Dies To Save The Hero. In classic racist terms this sacrificing western woman is often Mexican; she’s killed off to avoid even hint of race-mixing. Ruth Roman is dark-haired in contrast to Calvet’s blonde locks, so sorry, she’s stamped with an expiration date despite her high billing. Roman played a similar character a year later in Jacques Tourneur’s Great Day in the Morning, and met the exact same fate — the ‘other’ frontier dame Virginia Mayo was a blonde, too.
The supporting villains are drawn from a standard deck of knaves. Among them is the toothily sinister Robert J. Wilke, of Night Passage. He had also just played James Mason’s loyal first officer in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Jack Elam’s lazy eye made him an easily-recognized favorite bad guy; he’s Gannon’s number one deputy/enforcer. As Latigo, stuntman-turned actor Chuck Roberson wears a nasty makeup scar. Like all the actors typecast as villains, Roberson was shot down in feature after feature, most notably by Robert Mitchum in the superlative The Wonderful Country. But some bad guy actors get to switch sides. Gravel-voiced John Doucette plays a friendly miner, and Royal Dano is again under-utilized in a bit as a meek prospector.
Are the more sentimental touches in The Far Country Stewart’s doing, to safeguard his ‘family’ persona? One of the folksier gags is a little bell that hangs from the horn of Jeff Webster’s saddle. It sounds like something invented for a country western ballad. The little bell rings right at the end, for the fade out. One expects Corrine Calvet to twinkle her eyes and chirp,
“Every time a bell rings, somebody Jeff Webster has shot gets his wings.”
As their collaboration matured, Anthony Mann and James Stewart’s aims seemed to diverge. Mann wanted to do more serious pictures like his (unpopular) western greats Devil’s Doorway and The Furies, with its allusions to classical theater. Stewart wanted to soften the output and leaned more toward pro- military (Strategic Air Command) and pro- business (Thunder Bay) themes. Although they continued to work together, Mann and Stewart made their last western in 1955 for Columbia, The Man from Laramie. The CinemaScope reworking of King Lear was done more in Anthony Mann’s style — few endearing family touches, no musical instruments. They parted company while preparing Night Passage, which ended up an agreeably standard western with Stewart calling the shots. The cutesy song Stewart plays on his accordion lauds the railroad, the first corporate entity to become more powerful than the government.
Is The Far Country a great western? It certainly has a lofty pedigree, and James Stewart is always entertaining even in his weaker films. It does seem to gather up its share of clichés — Walter Brennan’s sidekick, the predictable women, etc — but Jeff Webster’s relationship with McIntire’s villain is fresh and amusing. If it misses the brass ring for me it’s because it doesn’t follow through on its somewhat radical notion of a hero who refuses to acknowledge kinship with ‘other people’ — the final confrontation is pure contrivance, with the villains suddenly no longer smart and the previously clueless locals suddenly launching a populist uprising. And Stewart ends up with a girl he’s been treating like a kid for ninety minutes?
Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray of The Far Country is a good attempt to do right by what was originally considered a routine ‘A’ western — only in the last thirty years or so have ’50s westerns by Mann, Boetticher, etc. been elevated to high pop art status. The transfer is described as a ‘brand new 4K restoration from the original film elements by Arrow Films,’ which sounds great. I believe that the earlier Mann/Stewart color westerns were filmed in 3-Strip Technicolor. Their The Glenn Miller Story is one of the last Technicolor shows filmed with the 3-Strip camera. The Far Country should have had an original Eastman negative.
The transfer on view is attractive but not ideal — it’s too grainy and a little soft, and colors can be harsh. It’s the kind of thing that will only bother a certain strata of fans, but it’s true that this BD copy is not a quantum improvement over the older DVD. It’s widescreen instead of flat and the audio is richer. At a true 24fps, motion is better as well. And the matching between optical sections isn’t bad either — the ‘bumps’ before and after dissolves are fairly smooth.
But we know that those glorious scenes shot in Canada must originally have looked a little better. A great deal of the show was filmed back at Universal City, but quite a bit uses the impressive glacier as a background — I think the entire trip to Skagway must have been filmed across several miles below the glacial ice. Good optical effects (David S. Horsely) create an impressive avalanche scene.
Some of the transition music cues sound like, but are not exactly the same, as cues I’ve heard a hundred times in Universal’s sci-fi pics of the day. Listening to commentaries pays off — David Schecter has explained that Universal re-used compositions, re-recording them for different movies with different tempos, swapping out orchestration, etc. That’s why similar music might show up in a monster movie, a western and a war movie, and also why four (uncredited) composers are associated with the film.
Arrow has given us a 1:85 transfer on the first disc with the extras, and a lone 2:1 aspect ratio version on the second disc. Visually, they seem to be the same. The second ratio is so close to the first as to seem like a waste; they might have done better with a 1:37 transfer instead, which would appease the fans that prefer the movie as it was presented on TV for so long. But it’s true — Daily Variety listed aspect ratios for many films during this transition period, and a lot of Universals were ‘recommended’ for 2.00:1.
Arrow works up some quality extras. The soft-spoken audio commentary by Adrian Martin describes the basic history of the Mann westerns and does some acceptable analysis on the the film’s themes. I like it when he asks what happened to Ronda Castle for the last shot — the crowd of newly-empowered Skagwayans is suddenly standing where Ronda ought to be, below the steps of her eatery-gambling palace.
Daniel Griffith produces and directs a well-done ‘experts talk’ docu on the movie, 33 minutes or so in duration. Expert Alan Rode leads a pack of commentators — C. Courtney Joyner, Michael Preece, Rob Word and Michael Schlesinger — in discussing the situation at Universal during the making of the film, in particular the director’s feud with the producer. We hear a lot about Anthony Mann in general and James Stewart’s fairly amazing $$ deal with Universal. The overall analysis of their breakup is nicely covered as well. Griffith’s graphic treatment is excellent — he works mainly with film clips and interesting stills.
A second piece by Kim Newman (wearing a funny kinda-cowboy hat!) brings in what I remember to be the English critic perspective, that helped launch genre criticism back when I was filling my head with auteurist notions about these ’50s filmmakers. Perhaps that’s why I like Newman’s analysis so much — it generally follows the biases I collected back in film school. The insert booklet contains an extended essay by Philip Kemp. I ran to the ‘original reviews’ page, but only found one paragraph from The Monthly Film Bulletin.
The show has English subs. The only reason I can see for hanging on to the old 2003 Universal DVD is that it has subtitles in French and Spanish as well.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Far Country
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good – minus
Supplements: Two presentations in both original aspect ratios of 1.85:1 and 2.00:1; audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; American Frontiers: Anthony Mann at Universal, a Daniel Griffith documentary with Alan K. Rode, C. Courtney Joyner, Michael Schlesinger, Rob Word, and script supervisor Michael Preece; Mann of the West, an appraisal by Kim Newman; Image gallery, trailer. Limited edition booklet with an essay by Philip Kemp.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Two Blu-rays in Keep case in plastic sleeve
Reviewed: November 14, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson