Bend of the River (Universal, 1952)
By 1952, two years on from Winchester ‘73, Universal’s Anthony Mann/James Stewart collaboration (I nearly said franchise) had progressed. Stewart has the same hat – that wonderfully sweat-stained affair - and rides the same horse, Pie, but Bend of the River had Technicolor now and there was a lot of expensive location work (Mount Hood, Oregon), nicely photographed by Irving Glassberg. Furthermore, all traces of noir had been left definitively behind. Bend of the River is a big, expansive ‘outdoors’ Western.
Borden Chase, Winchester ’73’s screenwriter, was recalled to do the script, using Bill Gulick's 1950 novel Bend of the Snake, and once more the screenplay is tight, doesn’t waste words and is exciting. The story tells of a wagon train of decent farmers, guided by ex-gunman Stewart, a classic Mannish ‘man with a past’. The farmers settle in the high country near Portland, Oregon but are cheated by a crook out of vital supplies, without which they cannot last the winter. Stewart rides back down to Portland to get them and is duly heroic. That’s the plot.
It starts with a grimacing face and a noose. Two guys who know each other, who have knocked about the West a bit, not always on the right side of the law, ex-Missouri raiders. One saves the other from a necktie party.
"Still following that star?"
"Better than having a man with a star following you."
It’s a good start.
Arthur Kennedy is entertaining as the - at first charming - villain. His rascally laugh is infectious but he proves eventually that he is a rotten apple. He combines both the black evil and the cheerfully roguish natures of the two villains McNally and Duryea from Winchester ’73, and he is, essentially, Stewart's other self. This equality, or pairing, is emphasized continually by Mann framing shots of them together and the editing. They are two sides of the same coin. Kennedy saves Stewart’s life in a fight with Indians, but that deed will be repaid differently at the end. This notion of good guy with faults vs. mirror-image bad guy with saving graces was one that Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott would exploit so well together at the end of the decade.
Rock Hudson has been promoted from Ug-type Indian in Winchester ’73 to a star part (though this was the last time he worked with Stewart) and he is very dashing as dandy gambler Trey Wilson who is fast with a gun. He outdraws fellow gambler Frank Ferguson in a good scene.
Jay C Flippen has also been promoted, from minor role Army sergeant in Winchester to be the farmers’ stout leader.
And Chubby Johnson and Stepin’ Fetchit are fun as the riverboat captain who “shoulda stayed on the Mississippi” and his black sidekick, although reviewer Bosley Crowther commented that he was sorry to see the African-American actor playing another "clownish stereotype." Reviewer Glenn Erickson said, “The conservative filmmakers likely thought they were being generous in giving so much screen time to the black actor, but [Chubby Johnson] is the only person who addresses Adam directly. Every other white character ignores him, as if he’s invisible. Don’t want to upset those censors in the South.”
Julia Adams and Lori Nelson make rather glamorous farm girls but honestly they only seem to be there for Stewart, Hudson and Kennedy to dally with. Julia gets skewered with an arrow just as Joanne Dru did in Red River. Luckily there are bold men to save her. That's Mann for you: after Devil’s Doorway and The Furies, where women were strong and central characters, and I suppose Cimarron, if you count that as a Western, females were only really in his Westerns as accessories. Ms Adams is useful as the point of the love triangle: she is attracted to both Kennedy and Stewart, and will be another cause of conflict between the two.
Stalwarts Royal Dano (Long Tom) and Harry Morgan (Shorty) are seedy gunmen. The excellent Jack Lambert is the dumb wagon trainer Red.
The film is colorful, action-packed and lively. There are Injun attacks, a mutiny and shoot-outs, not to mention the battling with the terrain. Stewart is gritty and tough. He is again driven, forceful, violent, if not quite as manic as Lin McAdam in Winchester. In this one Jimmy the badman redeems himself by getting the supplies to the settlers. You’ve got a hero with a murky past and a bad man with redeeming features. Westerns were moving on. But by now people were getting used to the idea of Mr Smith or Elwood P Dowd in a tough, grown-up Western. The following year they’d get The Naked Spur where he'd be even tougher – in fact borderline psychotic.
The Hans J Salter score provides ‘rolling’ music suitable for the high mountains and mighty rivers that Mann was showing an increasing penchant for.
Studio executives were unsure if British audiences would understand the title and changed the syntax to Where the River Bends. Now I may be obtuse, probably am, but I do think the average Brit might understand the four words Bend of the River. Just. They do speak English over there. Kinda. In fact I think they may have invented it.
Mann loved the journey, physical as much as psychological, and all his Westerns contain this element. They are films about following a course - trail, river, quest for revenge - and because of this they are essentially Western. In every one, it becomes necessary to change, to turn - there is a bend in the river. Jay C Flippen's wagon train leader is morally rigid and says “rotten apples” can never change. He's right about Kennedy but wrong about Stewart, and he's forced to change his mind. The film is about at least the possibility of redemption. Even cynical smooth gambler Rock changes into sturdy settler and future husband. Finally, the climactic fight between good and evil (or the two sides of the same character) takes place in the river and when Jimmy finally overcomes, Kennedy's body is washed away downstream, in a sort of purification rite. Oops, I think I have got a bit pretentious. Too much reading of Jeanine Basinger. Hell, it's a Western movie. Don't let’s go all intellectual.
The film, completed in six weeks, was a healthy box-office earner, grossing $3m, although not nearly matching High Noon, the year's third best picture at the box office, and once again Stewart took a percentage of the profits. In 1953, Universal producer/exec William Goetz estimated that Jimmy earned $750,000 from the picture. However, Stewart considered Bend of the River to be the most physically demanding film he ever made, and he earned those bucks.
The picture did not receive fulsome praise as an artwork from the critics, but generally they thought it OK as a Western. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times said, “The distinction of Bend of the River, which came to the Paramount yesterday—outside of two colorful performances by Arthur Kennedy and James Stewart—is the fact that it brings into conflict two rarely contending groups and keeps you guessing as to which of its male stars is going to turn out ‘good’ and which ‘bad’.” Crowther added, “The scenery is good in Technicolor and the fightin' is frequent and bold. Thanks to Universal-International, here's a present for the Western outdoor fans.”
Variety thought the “Basic plot line is a simple affair” and praised the acting: “Stewart’s handling of his role has punch. Kennedy socks his likeable heavy role. Julie Adams fulfills romantic demands of her top femme role, and Rock Hudson pleasantly projects the part of a young gambler who joins the settlers.”
As usual with Mann Westerns, initial moderate praise has since grown into almost adulation, and the pictures have achieved semi-cult status. They are examined and analyzed and deconstructed in film studies classes worldwide. Writers such as Jim Kitses have made their names discussing them, though I find the writing a tad indigestible, I'm afraid. Jean-Luc Godard, who called the director Supermann, wrote that "with Anthony Mann one rediscovers the western, as one discovers arithmetic in an elementary maths class.” I see. Josh Kierstead thinks that in Bend of the River Mann “fully articulated his skepticism of capitalism and unrestricted free markets” and the film “advocates for society to provide both fiduciary oversight and basic protections for the downtrodden.” Who knows, maybe he’s right.
I actually think that the reviews at the time were probably right. Bend of the River is no great chef d’oeuvre, no towering artistic or intellectual achievement. But it is an exciting mountain Western with lots of action, a classy script and some good acting.
Let me end with a word of advice from the movie: “Never mix marriage with gambling. Percentage is all against it.” I thought you ought to know.
[As a little footnote, reader smithjk tells me that The High Cumberland, a two-part Daniel Boone TV episode from 1966, also turned into a movie, Daniel Boone: Frontier Trail Rider, is almost an exact scene-for-scene copy of Chase's script for Bend of the River. It even has some of the same dialogue. Dan'l leads settlers to Kentucky to build Boonesboro, meets his future wife, Rebecca and first meets Mingo. Supposedly written by DD Beauchamp from his own story, it is in fact a copy of Chase's script. Chase wrote the first episode of Daniel Boone and Aaron Rosenberg was executive producer of both productions, so maybe that explains it.]