Bend of the River (1952)

Directed by Anthony Mann
Written by Borden Chase

Welcome back Anthony Mann and James Stewart! I’ve hit a rough patch in this marathon, and while I could chalk it up to genre fatigue, I always knew it was just a bad run of films that would break sooner or later. Well, here is the second film in a row which I have enjoyed (Viva Zapata!), which sets a trend and bodes well for the future. Of course, getting director/actor teams like Kazan/Brando and Mann/Stewart certainly has a lot to do with that. Winchester ’73 already feels so long ago, but the pair showed they’re capable of making a compelling film, mostly because of Stewart’s western persona, which is a little tougher and edgier than we’re used to seeing him, and Mann’s prowess to tell a hard edge story in a rough and ready setting. Bend of the River is another notch in their belt.

The film opens with Glyn McLyntock (Stewart) leading a wagon train of farmers to the fertile lands of Oregon. Along the way, he picks up a questionable stranger named Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy), who was about to be strung up by a vigilante posse. Once they make their way to Oregon, the farmers settle up river from Portland, the booming town. But when their ordered supplies don’t arrive on time, Glyn travels down to Portland to investigate. While there he discovers that because the price of supplies has gone up, the farmers’ share isn’t coming, as it was sold at a higher price to someone else. Not taking a liking to this business, which includes the opportunistic play of Cole, Glyn sticks his neck out for the farmers, as he sees a new life with them and a girl named Laura (Julie Adams).

I know I opened talking about Stewart and Mann, and we’ll get to them, but I think this is the first time we’ve seen Arthur Kennedy (which would also be the first time I remember seeing him in general), and boy what a nice surprise he is. His presence is so inviting, and he really plays the rather ambiguous Cole pitch perfect. He has a menace to him, but his overwhelming persona is warm and happy. He has some great grins here, and really seems to be enjoying himself on screen. It’s that kind of verve and passion that makes a film like Bend of the River better than most. Of course, Stewart is awesome here too. He gives as good a performance as anything else he’s done, though perhaps the part isn’t as meaty as some of his more memorable and notable roles.

I’m not sure if there’s a connection between Glyn McLyntock and John Wayne’s McLintock! (which I’ve yet to see), but if not that’s a strange coincidence. I really do love the harder edged Stewart though. He’s one of my favorite actors and now getting to see this other side of him has been really fun to experience and watch. It only adds to his mystique, and doesn’t take anything away. Imagine if George Bailey went up to Mr. Potter with a Winchester or a .45 and demanded he make things right instead of doing things “the right way”. The heart is still in the right place, it’s the method that’s changed and the violent and physically intimidating Stewart is just as exciting and interesting. Playing against character does give it a little extra “ummph”, I must admit.

As for the story, it’s fairly standard, but with the actors in play I think they give greater depth and intricacy to the twists and turns than we could have expected from anyone else. The cinematography is gorgeous. As a big fan of both cinematography and western landscapes, I am definitely excited we’ve entered more into the color period, with the opportunity for my eye-popping vistas. I enjoyed this film very much. It’s a short, effective, and very entertaining yarn with plenty to take away from it and further proof that Stewart is a great actor, capable of adapting his style across genre. Hey, did he ever do a musical!?

★★★ – Liked It

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