Of small-town Pennsylvania Protestant stock, James Stewart (1908-1997) starred in five Westerns directed by Emil Anton Bundsmann, aka Anthony Mann (1906-1967), whose father was a Catholic of Austrian descent and whose mother was Jewish, with roots in Germany. Though Mann was born in the U.S., his pictures have much in common with those of Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Andre de Toth and other European emigre directors of the period. Theirs is a harsh and unforgiving world in which to drop one’s guard is to risk humiliation, exploitation, injury, and violent death.
Considering Stewart’s overall body of work, we tend to remember him as a self-effacing, humane, put-upon yet patient sort of a hero. This sense of Stewart abides even in films like Vertigo (1958) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) in which his characters are for a time or to some degree emotionally disturbed and even in films where he plays a villain such as the unlikely murderer in After the Thin Man (1936) or a morally ambiguous figure like Buttons the mercy-killing clown in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952).
Our enduring sense of Stewart’s good-guy persona is what makes viewing Mann’s Westerns a startling experience. In each, though Stewart’s characters may in certain interludes and in the unlikely concluding scenes exhibit traces of his familiar humanity, our prevailing sense in these movies is that the man is seriously off his rocker.
Home on the range? Not this cowboy. Looking at the Western landscape, Stewart sees neither beauty nor harmony, only obstacles and threats to his plans. Moreover, to Stewart, the citizens peopling this forlorn country—whether individually or in the packs they tend to prefer—are predators, except to the extent they are decent, home-loving folk in which case they are prey.
In some part we understand that the Stewart character’s sensibility is a product of his experience. He has lived in the West, has endured and—at least for now—has overcome its many dangers. In three of the five films we are also made aware of specific past incidents that have nudged him toward the deep end. In Winchester ’73 (1950), Stewart’s brother has murdered their father. In Bend of the River (1952), Stewart is trying to renounce not only an outlaw past but a lingering fondness for that past. And in The Man from Laramie (1955), he’s chasing the ne’er do well who armed the band of Indians that killed his brother.
A harsh environment and past trauma may have helped make the man who he is. But in each of the five movies we sense that there is something more, an in-born, elemental quality which, even more than the environmental and historical forces, alienates and isolates the Stewart character from the rest of humanity. It’s the alienation that Stewart evokes in each performance, most vividly in the Naked Spur (1953), which makes these movies so compelling despite stereotypical supporting characters and good but not great storylines.
In The Far Country (1954) Stewart plays Jeff Webster, a cowboy who with his much older sidekick Ben (Walter Brennan), plans to take a herd of cattle from Wyoming to Alaska. Once there, the two men will sell the herd and use the proceeds to buy a ranch in Utah where they can settle down.
As the story unfolds, we wait in vain for some explanation for why Jeff is as he is: a loner, disdainful of community and of any sort of dependent relationship, leery of any weakness within himself—which is how Jeff conceives any sort of tender emotion—possessed of a driving need to dominate any group of which he is a part, able with a gun and more than willing to use one. Within the timeframe of the picture Jeff kills at least nine men and we have no reason to doubt his assertion that his present proficiency is solidly grounded in past practice.
In a sense Jeff is not without humanity but, rather than internalize humane qualities, he delegates them to Ben. In Ben we—and grudgingly Jeff—find friendliness, good humor, an appreciation for home and hearth, empathy, community spirit, and a modest appreciation for creature comforts such as pipe tobacco and coffee. Ben is too old for women and Jeff doesn’t seem to have much use for them either.
The impediments Jeff encounters in his quest to reach Alaska are of a sort familiar to Western movies fan. Jeff’s aggression, paranoia, and selfishness, which dictate his reaction to these impediments, are another matter. (Now and again an annoyingly emotive score plays under the dialog, apparently trying to convince the viewer that Jeff’s harsh words do not reflect his true feelings.)
The movie begins with a cattle drive, Jeff and four hired hands pushing the herd from Wyoming to Seattle where Ben and an Alaska-bound ship are waiting. Along the way two of the hired hands quit the drive and make off with some number of cattle. It is never clear whether this action constitutes rustling or the urge to escape a nut-job boss, with the cattle taken as payment for work done to date. Jeff responds to this betrayal, whatever its character, by running down and killing the two departed drovers and confiscating the guns of the survivors who he forces to complete the trip. At the Seattle dock Jeff returns the guns to the survivors, both of whom clearly hate Jeff. He urges them to draw so that he can kill them, but they decline the offer.
After the cattle are loaded and the ship has loosed its moorings, the surviving drovers yell to the ship’s captain that Jeff is a murderer. Captain and crew seek to make an arrest but Jeff finds his way to the stateroom of Ronda (Ruth Roman), the tale’s would-be sexpot. Ronda is immediately smitten with Jeff and hides him from the authorities. Ronda’s kindness arouses Jeff’s suspicion rather than his gratitude. In his world, no one ever acts except from selfish motives, and Jeff can’t quite make out what Ronda’s may be.
Once the ship docks in Skagway, the captain tries to extort a surcharge from Ben before unloading the cattle. While Ben quarrels with the captain, Jeff emerges from hiding and drives the cattle off the ship. The herd stampedes through downtown Skagway interrupting the imminent hanging of two miscreants by Mr. Gannon (John McIntire), the town’s self-appointed chief law officer and principle businessman.
Gannon arrests Jeff and charges him with the murder of the two Wyoming drovers and with disturbing Skagway’s peace. He convenes a trial in the town’s largest saloon which is owned by Ronda with whom Gannon has some sort of business connection. Gannon summarily acquits Jeff of murder but convicts him of disturbing the peace and, as a penalty, confiscates the herd. As Jeff had done with the surviving drovers back in Seattle, Gannon hands Jeff back his gun and invites the seething cowpoke to draw. This is one of several instances in which we are meant to see that Jeff and Gannon, the villain of the piece, are birds of a feather—except that the always cackling Gannon is endowed with a sense of humor which is lacking in Jeff.
The gunfight is averted through the intervention of French-Canadian gamine Renee (Corinne Calvet) who jumps between the two men. Now without resources, Jeff and Ben decide that the only way to get together a poke is to join the prospectors headed north to the diggings up around Dawson. In contrast with corrupt and lawless Skagway, Dawson is depicted as a model of peace, goodwill, and harmony. The northern city’s principle business is the Hash House where, served by salt-of-the-earth owners Hominy and Grits, decent folk congregate and recuperate from their honest labors.
Unfortunately, Mr. Gannon, who seeks to expand his evil empire, has his eye on Dawson where Ronda has already opened a Skagway-style saloon in competition with the Hash House. Jeff, meanwhile, has stolen his herd back from Gannon and brought it to Dawson where he puts it up for bid. Jeff doesn’t give community virtue a second thought in selling the whole herd to Ronda who outbids cash-strapped Hominy. If the prospectors’ hunger for beef leads every one of them to abandon the Hash House in favor of Ronda’s better provisioned and gaudier premises, such is life.
Now that the cattle are sold and their pockets filled with loot, Ben reminds Jeff that it’s time to head for Utah and that little ranch of their dreams. Jeff tells Ben to pound sand. Turns out he’s caught the gold fever and aims to stick around and do some prospecting. Though without any discussion of splitting the proceeds of their cattle sale, Jeff tells Ben he’s free to leave if those are his druthers. Completely dependent, Ben has no choice but to stick around.
Meanwhile, Gannon’s heavies have started drifting into Dawson, jumping claims and killing those prospectors cheeky enough to kick up a fuss. The town’s good-folks together with Ben urge Jeff’s intervention, but Jeff doesn’t see how taking on this role would serve his self-interest. In fact, with the bad guys now present in force, Jeff decides it’s time to hightail it out of Dawson and leave the locals to their own devices. He and Ben leave in the dead of night but garrulous old Ben, while provisioning in town prior to departure, has betrayed both their plan and their route. Gannon’s men pursue the pair, kill Ben, and badly would Jeff, leaving him for dead.
Jeff crawls back to his shack on Dawson’s outskirts where Renee finds him and tends to his wounds. As with Ronda at the beginning of the picture, Jeff is suspicious of Renee’s motives. Her explanation, that helping out is what decent people do for one another, just doesn’t wash.
Through Renee’s continued efforts, Jeff has regained at least a measure of strength when Ronda shows up at his door. Ronda urges Jeff to run away with her and Jeff makes his preference for Ronda over Renee sufficiently plain that his tender-hearted benefactress has no real choice to give up the contest.
Later, though still not fully healed, Jeff makes his way to the Hash House where he scolds the populace for failing to resist Gannon and his gang. Those scolded remind Jeff that his response to Gannon’s aggression was, if unsuccessfully, to run away. Motivated by shame rather than any sense of justice, Jeff returns to his shack, straps on his six-shooter, and returns to town. He kills Gannon’s principle heavies and then Gannon himself, though not before the villain shoots and kills Ronda, whereupon the inspired populace drives off the now leaderless lesser heavies and reclaims the town.
Ronda’s death reopens the door for Renee. The movie suggests that, paired up, she and Jeff will become pillars of a rejuvenated community and will live happily ever after. Given Jeff’s character as delineated in all but the movie’s final few minutes, it seems far more probable that the relationship is soon to go bust. Less clear is who will run out on whom, Renee, realizing that she’s hooked up with seriously damaged goods, or Jeff, constitutionally unable to abide Renee’s virtuous company.
Though the ending of The Far Country is set at night, few scenes in Mann’s Westerns or other like-minded Westerns of the era are shot in shadow or at night or as if at night, and, in this, they lack one of the qualities that helps define a certain sort of urban crime story as film noir. In film noir, darkness helps convey the sense of a dangerous world and to express the cynicism and alienation of its inhabitants. In noir Westerns such as Mann’s, this same sense is conveyed by scenes set in a forbidding landscape in the harsh light of day.
Noir is less a matter of lighting than it is of sensibility. We can as easily imagine a character like Stewart’s Jeff Webster looking anxiously over his shoulder in a dark tenement stairwell as we can crouching with his back to the river in the wilds of Alaska. Characters such as his may not be especially likeable but, when contrasted with the mythic Western hero, they provide a useful corrective and, to the extent we are looking for lessons in art, may move us a bit closer to the truth of the Western, and perhaps, the human experience.