Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Bend of the River (1952)

This James Stewart and Anthony Mann western makes an interesting comparison with Meek’s Cutoff, reviewed here last week. There are many of the same elements, including a wagon train, a hired scout, Indians, and the vast unsettled terrain of Oregon.

This Oregon is a good deal more picturesque, with forests, a distant snow-covered mountain peak, and a navigable river. Like Meek, Stewart plays a man with something of a past, though he rarely speaks of it. He’s run with border raiders in Missouri and Kansas during the Civil War, the scars on his neck evidence of an encounter with vigilantes.

It’s hard to believe likable James Stewart as a former bad man. While he is always an enjoyable screen presence, this is a role more for Clint Eastwood or Sam Elliott. Actually, it’s a role for Arthur Kennedy, who is also in the film as another former bad man. We first meet him, about to be elevated at the end of a rope, and Stewart saves him without asking any questions.

Plot. The two men team up and are joined later by a third man, a gambler played handsomely by Rock Hudson. The wagon train is harassed by Shoshone, who are dispatched one by one, 1950s style, by gun and knife. The travelers are received warmly by the folks in Portland, who give them a big send-off as they head upriver by steamboat to a valley where they intend to settle.

The warm welcome quickly disappears with the discovery of gold in the vicinity. Portland turns into sin city, and the settlers’ supplier reneges on a deal to ship them cattle and food for the winter. Stewart, Kennedy, and Hudson seize the goods and set out on a long trek, first by boat and then overland, blazing a trail over a mountain pass.

They are pursued first by the supplier and his henchmen, who come to an unhappy end in a fierce firefight. Then several hired hands mutiny, and with Kennedy taking charge, there’s a change of plans. He heads the wagons instead for a mining camp, where big money has been promised for delivery of the settlers’ food and cattle.

Left behind but undaunted, Stewart pursues them, and during a shootout in the midst of a river crossing, he struggles fiercely with Kennedy, finally overpowering him and sending his body down the river. Stewart’s past becomes known, and he’s recognized as a changed man. The supply train arrives at the settlement, where Stewart gets a big thank you for his efforts and the affection of Laura whose respect he has won.
Mount Hood, Sandy River, Oregon
Genre conventions. Indians in this film are menacing figures, plain and simple. There’s no debate about how to deal with them. It’s kill or be killed. Bad men are the same. Many bite the dust during the film, and their deaths are treated like ball players who have fouled out of the game. We see them fall dead, and for all we know they are left where they fall.

Filmed on location in Oregon, this color film makes the most of being outdoors. There are grand vistas, and steamboat lovers will enjoy the footage of river travel. Four-horse teams exert impressive effort as they pull wagons up to mountain snowlines, where beyond them distant valleys and ranges can be seen. The music track is correspondingly grand.

Though blacks are seldom seen in westerns, this one has the dubious presence of Stepin Fetchit, who does his usual slow-witted routine, as assistant to the ship’s captain. You can imagine a mid-century audience chuckling at his coon antics and you can cringe with embarrassment.

Women are present to add a grace note of femininity. Julia Adams, in fact, is grace under pressure. Wounded by an Indian arrow to the throat, she hardly pales under the primitive conditions of frontier health care. The traditional alcoholic doctor removes the arrow and prescribes a month of bed rest, during which she gets to liking city life and takes a job as a cashier in a gambling den. Instead of taking a shine to the likes of Stewart, she shows additional bad judgment by getting chummy with Kennedy.
Portland, Oregon, 1898
Performances. Which brings these comments around to Kennedy, whose appearance as a film star always puzzles me. No matter what the rest of his face is doing, his crooked smile has a way of signaling uncertainty and unpleasantness. Here you suspect him from the start, and it’s no surprise when he becomes a turncoat and leaves Stewart on the mountain without a horse or a gun.

Meanwhile, Rock Hudson plays his gambler as so engagingly charming, you wonder why he isn’t in his own movie. His character is mostly only sketched in, and he’s really too big for the role. Henry Morgan also plays a part that doesn’t really fit him. Destined to be the avuncular Col. Potter on MASH, he is not too convincing in this film as a malcontent and mutinous member of the supply train.

Lessons learned. The lesson of the movie is that the chance to get rich quick corrupts the old school values of many. It takes a strong man to resist it, and Stewart, of course, is the man. As someone with a checkered past, he redeems himself by keeping a promise to the settlers, even if it means getting no more than a thank you from them for his efforts. That would feel better, he says, than any amount of money.

Jay C. Flippen as Laura’s father is the patriarch of the settlers and the film’s moral center. Holding to old-fashioned values like honesty, hard work, and a belief that bad apples never change, he comes to see that Stewart is an exception to the rule. A peaceable man, he doesn’t take well to being betrayed and abused by Kennedy and admits that “For the first time in my life I want to see a man killed.”
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Wrapping up. For all its miscast characters, Bend of the River has many good moments, and you don’t mind that it’s a little dated. It has high ambitions, and the photography and grand sweep of the film put it squarely in the Hollywood tradition of 1950s westerns with adult themes.

By comparison, Meek’s Cutoff is a small film. But how much does size matter? It takes on some pretty hefty issues and doesn’t use the shortcuts of movie conventions to deal with them. It also doesn’t short change American history by playing to old mythologies. A movie like Bend of the River tells a story about the West that is larger than life. There’s a time for that, but there’s also a time for trying to see it as it really was.

The screenplay for Bend of the River was by Borden Chase, a screenwriter with a long list of movie and TV credits, many of them westerns, including Red River and Winchester ’73. It was based on the novel Bend of the Snake (1952) by Bill Gulick, who was a frequent contributor to Saturday Evening Post and went on to write a number of books, fiction and nonfiction, many about the Pacific Northwest.

The movie is currently available at netflix, amazon, and Barnes and Noble. Overlooked Movies is a much-appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Frederick Niven, Hands Up! (1913)


  1. Another movie I doubt I have seen. Julie Adams, though. Wow!

  2. Have heard of the movie. Not of the book. I might want to read that.

  3. I think I'll pass on the movie and give the book a try if time permits.

  4. The novel was Bend of the Snake, and it was written by the grand old man of Western Writers of America, Bill Gulick. He is still going strong. He is better known for another novel that became a film, The Hallelujah Train, which became the Hallelujah Trail. The premise is wonderful, but the film misfired.

  5. ["It’s hard to believe likable James Stewart as a former bad man. While he is always an enjoyable screen presence, this is a role more for Clint Eastwood or Sam Elliott. "]

    James Stewart has played his share of unlikable characters, including a mentally unstable murderer.