Saturday 15 February 2014

Movie Review: The Far Country (1954)

A gold rush adventure, The Far Country is a satisfying western, with impressive scenery making up for a lackadaisical narrative.

During the Klondike gold rush, Jeff Webster (James Stewart) and his sidekick Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan) lead a cattle drive toward Dawson City in the Canadian territories. At the Alaskan border town of Skagway, Jeff runs afoul of racketeering Judge Gannon (John McIntire), who seizes the cattle and attempts to intimidate Jeff. Local businesswoman Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman) comes to the rescue and invites Jeff to join her supplies caravan to Dawson, but not before innocent Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet), the daughter of Skagway's doctor, develops a crush on Jeff.

Jeff eventually steals back his cattle, further infuriating Gannon, and demonstrates a stubborn streak of self-preservation by making his way to Dawson, securing a prospecting claim and looking after only himself. When Ronda and Gannon make their move to seize control of Dawson, Jeff has to decide where his real interests lie.

One of five western collaborations between Stewart and director Anthony Mann, The Far Country rarely strays from fairly standard, and sometimes cursory, treatment of common western themes. The action scenes start and end with a suddenness that hints at lazy scripting courtesy of Borden Chase, while Jeff's transformation journey from loner looking after himself to a man who must learn to care about his community can be spotted early.

The film is more memorable for breathtaking scenery and mud-drenched depictions of fledgling towns supporting the gold rush. Filming in Jasper National Park, Mann and cinematographer William H. Daniels make excellent use of the rugged, chilly and imposing terrain. Skagway and particularly Dawson are portrayed as rough frontier towns, where the rich and powerful rule by intimidation, either with subtlety in the case of Ronda, or with more open aggression, the method preferred by Gannon.

The potentially romantic triangle between Jeff, Ronda and Renee adds an element of human interest, but with Jeff mostly in love with himself and Ronda clearly more manipulative than caring, there is little room for any serious affection to flourish.

James Stewart cruises through the movie with a smooth, laid-back presence, his impressive confidence bordering on disinterest. More engaged are the two antagonists. John McIntire adds plenty of colourful bite to the role of Judge Gannon, a seemingly self-appointed law officer, prosecutor, juror and judge. Ruth Roman as Ronda Castle exudes the determination of a woman always ready to buy her way to ever increasing power, and looking for the most convenient partner for every given opportunity. Walter Brennan, as always, plays Walter Brennan.

The Far Country is a visual feast at the front lines of the quest for gold; the plot and characters stay much closer to home.

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