Tuesday 25 August 2015

Movie Review: Bend Of The River (1952)

A sturdy western, Bend Of The River is the story of homesteaders making their way west, and the resourceful men who can either help or victimize the new wave of settlers.

Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart) is leading a large convoy of wagons carrying optimistic farmers towards new pastures in Oregon. Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen) is the grizzled leader of the settlers, and the group includes his headstrong daughters Laurie (Julie Adams) and Marjie (Lori Nelson). Laurie and Glyn are attracted to each other, but stop short of expressing any true affection. After making camp one evening, Glyn scouts ahead and stumbles onto a lynching-in-progress: he saves Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from the noose. The two men recognize each other: they were both frontier raiders on the Missouri - Kansas border, and both are trying to find new starts away from chequered pasts.

Emerson joins the convoy and proves to be handy in overcoming the challenges of the trail, including fending off a raid by Shoshone Indians, during which Laurie suffers an arrow wound and Emerson saves Glyn's life. The convoy gets to Portland, where they meet professional gambler Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson) and local businessman Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie). Glyn and Jeremy lead the settlers to remote hillside territory to establish the farming community, but their resupply plans are disrupted by an unexpected gold rush that consumes Portland. With Hendricks reneging on his deals and the settler community facing starvation over the winter, Glyn has to take matters into his own hands and joins forces with Jeremy, Emerson and Trey on a dangerous cross-mountain trek, although the lure of gold means that trust is in short supply.

The second collaboration between director Anthony Mann and star James Stewart, Bend Of The River is filled with characters, incidents, and fundamental questions about redemption and second chances. The film is as much an exploration of events as it is a thoughtful probing of the nature of the men who shaped the west, and the screenplay by Borden Chase finds a pleasing balance between action and character development.

Mutual suspicion colliding with the absolute need to trust forms the core of the film. Glyn and Emerson circle each other, each identifying both the danger and potential that resides in the other man. They are quickly indebted to each other and forced to collaborate, although neither is ever quite sure where loyalties will ultimately land. Jeremy has no choice: his group of settlers needs men like Glyn and Emerson to make it to safety and then to survive at the remote settlement. Jeremy will either trust men like Glyn and Emerson, or die. And there are always wildcards in the form of the gambler Trey and businessman Hendricks. They are out to make a buck one way or another, but whether it's principled or opportunistic profit could mean the difference between death and survival for Jeremy and his family.

And the fundamental question is whether men like Glyn and Emerson can change, from social outcasts to community builders. In the one area where the film falls short, the script tackles this issue loudly and repeatedly, the social message delivered with a jackhammer rather than any subtlety.

Mann and cinematographer Irving Glassberg colour the screen with the gorgeous scenery of the Pacific Northwest, with snow-capped mountains and the rich green forests creating a majestic backdrop. Equally impressive is the recreation of Portland as a frontier town, at first a staid and welcoming place and then a riotous town overrun by prospectors and profiteers. There is always something stunning to look at in Bend Of The River, and it's almost always beautiful.

James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy are excellent in the two central roles as frontiersmen who are the same yet potentially different. Stewart reveals Glyn's conflict as a man not comfortable admitting that his past is suspect, and fighting for his second chance in as dignified a manner as the west will allow. Kennedy allows Emerson to be, if anything, more honest. More comfortable with his past, Emerson will reform only on his own terms, and if the price is not too high.

Bend Of The River is a symbolic juncture where decisions will need to be made, trading off personal gain for societal benefit: not all men will turn in the same direction.

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