The Far Country (1954) Anthony Mann

James Stewart’s dark side is on full display in this upper north western. As usual with an Anthony Mann western the landscape plays an important part, the Canadian Rockies are majestic, though here the landscape is a combination of the natural beauty and artificial backlots whereas Mann’s other westerns were filmed entirely on location. This gives “The Far Country” a more ethereal tone that fits in with Stewart’s character, Jeff Webster, a man who isolates himself from all others in the film except for Ben Tatum, Walter Brennan’s old timer, whose death will trigger him into action.

Stewart’s Jeff Webster is a loner by choice, anti-social, he lives by his own code and depends on no one. “I don’t need help, I take care of me,” he tells Ben, the only person in the film he lets in anyway get close to him. They have been good friends for many years and Ben is very fond of Jeff. Yet, like the Canadian landscape, where much of the film takes place, Stewart remains cold and isolated from everyone else.

The storyline involves Webster, a cattle driver, who inadvertently drives his steers into the town of Skagway, in the Oregon Territory, interrupting a hanging being carried out by Gannon (John McIntire), the town’s corrupt one man judge and jury. Gannon confiscates the herd. In town, Jeff meets Rhonda Castle (Ruth Roman), a saloon owner who, like Jeff, doesn’t trust anyone. She tells Jeff later on, “I trusted a man once,” and goes on to explain her tale of woe. Jeff responds, “That’s a coincidence, I trusted a woman once,” only he leaves it at that, what happened, why? We never find out.

With his cattle gone, Jeff’s broke and forced to take a job working for Rhonda who is carrying needed supplies to gold miners up North in Canada.  Jeff, along with Ben and Rube (Jay C. Flippen), a drunken cattle hand, go along but not before Jeff steals back his cattle from Gannon driving them up to the mining town of Dawson where he sells them off to the locals. Jeff minds his own business even during the treacherous ride up north past dangerous snow covered mountains. The route is shorter if they go direct but Jeff, remembering similarly dangerous conditions back home in Wyoming that led to an avalanche, goes the long way. He does nothing to warn the others of the potential dangers of taking the short route. Soon the snow rumbles, igniting an avalanche burying folks beneath its thunder. Jeff refuses to go back and help search for and dig out any survivors. When asked by the young feisty French Canadian girl Renee Valon (Corinne Calvet) why he won’t help, Jeff responds why should he? He didn’t kill them. It’s his old companion, Ben who throughout the film acts as Jeff’s conscience tell him he’s wrong and he must help.

In Dawson, with the money made from the cattle sale, Jeff buys himself a goldmine and settles in to make his fortune. Rhonda Castle, with help from Gannon, also settles into Dawson, and with them comes corruption, thief and murder. The town folks attempt to fight back but are no match for Gannon and his “deputies.”  Jeff, though he is good with a gun, does not see this as his fight and refuses to help the town until Gannon’s men kill Ben and seriously wound him.

There are two women in Jeff’s life; one is Rhonda, the beautiful saloon owner, who like Jeff has remained on the side lines of society using anyone who benefits her own life and sordid goals. Working and surviving in Skagway she has naturally sided with Gannon’s corrupt lawman, yet has fallen for Jeff, a move that will eventually cost her dearly. The second woman is the tomboyish French girl Renee Vallon, a doctor’s daughter who develops a crush on Jeff. Renee has sided with the good hard working miners joined together to fight off the invasion of Gannon and his goons as they attempt to take over the mines and the town.

The film has an extremely fine cast, especially notable is John McIntire as Gannon, the corrupt lawman, judge and jury (think Judge Roy Bean) of Skagway who smiles slyly and tells Jeff when he first arrests him, “I’m gonna like you, I’m gonna hang you, but I’m gonna like you.” Gannon’s “deputies” include character actors Robert J. Wilke and the ever evil, Jack Elam, along with Steve Brodie and Harry Morgan contributing to the dirty deeds. Last but not least is the always dependable and entertaining Walter Brennan as Jeff’s loyal partner and friend, Ben. It’s the kind of role Brennan has done many times before, the old codger and side kick, but one never gets tired of it.

Compared to other Mann/Stewart collaborations, “The Far Country” is a bit too familiar with characters we have seen before. McIntire’s corrupt Judge, as I previously mentioned, acts like he’s a close relation of Judge Roy Bean, and Robert Wilke’s gunslinger brings to mine Jack Palance’s menacing gunslinger, Jack Wilson,  in “Shane.” The film’s ending is also unconvincing with Webster’s turn-a-round a bit too pat and convenient. Webster’s injured  shooting hand, which he could hardly move only moments before, now seemingly  healed enough to shoot it out with three killers before the towns folk turn armed and dangerous with guns and pitch forks ready to take on Gannon’s remaining  thugs (Brodie and Morgan).

The script was written by Borden Chase who also penned two earlier Mann/Stewart westerns, “Winchester ’73″ and “Bend of the River.”  Chase also wrote such outstanding westerns as “Red River” and “Vera Cruz” (story). If one looks closely, you will see similar traits in many of Chase’s characters, loners and outsiders, sometimes very bitter loners and outsiders.

Despite the familiarity and an unconvincing ending, “The Far Country” is entertaining. It’s caliber is not at the masterpiece level of  Mann westerns like The “Naked Spur,” “Bend of the River” and “Man of the West” still, it is a good film. Beautifully photographed by William Daniels who worked with Mann many times over the years and is best known for shooting many of Garbo’s most famous films. Finally, anytime James Stewart exposes his dark side, it’s well worth watching.

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16 comments on “The Far Country (1954) Anthony Mann

  1. Well done. I haven’t seen this film, but now I’d like to simply because I’ve seen the other Mann/Stewart collaborations and I’m a huge fan of Stewart.

    • John Greco says:

      CFM,

      The Mann/Stewart western are all great! THE FAR COUNTRY may not be up there with his best but it is still a very good western. Thanks!

  2. KimWilson says:

    Haven’t seen this, but, as you mention, it seems very familiar with a few recycled plot points. Stewart’s dark side is always enjoyable.

    • John Greco says:

      Kim,

      What makes Stewart’s dark side so effective is (IMHO) he just does not look like the anti-hero type. Films like THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, HARVEY and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER have conditioned us to see him as a nice guy, not capable of dark behavior, then watch a film like this and wow!

  3. R. D. Finch says:

    John, I like all the Mann-Stewart Westerns. Although I agree with you that this one’s not the best–I’d put “The Naked Spur” at the head of the pack with “The Man from Laramie” and “Winchester ’73″ not far behind–it’s still a fine film and a very enjoyable one. I’ve read some positive reviews of “Bend of the River” recently but I prefer this one to it. One of the reasons is that along with “The Naked Spur” this one has Stewart’s darkest character, although I find that his plain old self-centeredness in this film makes him a less interesting character than the more complex revenge-driven man of “Spur.” All of the Mann-Stewart Westerns have great casts, and this is one of the best, as well as the only one with Walter Brennan. And I can never resist a Western with Brennan in it! John McIntire usually played noble men, but he’s most convincing here as a megalomaniac baddie. I liked the comment you made about Brennan acting as Stewart’s conscience. I also liked the Canadian setting, which made a change from the usual Western setting and also provided, as you mentioned, some spectacular scenery.

    • John Greco says:

      R.D.

      I’m with you on liking all of the Mann/Stewart westerns. I guess I like BEND OF THE RIVER a bit more than you but all their films are at least very good, and most are great. I’ll throw in two non-Stewart westerns, MAN OF THE WEST and DEVIL’S DOORWAY. McIntire makes for a interesting evil character…he’s real nasty here. The two female characters are bit too much polar opposites, Ruth Roman representing the bad while Corinne Calvet is the good girl who wins Stewart in the end. I would have liked to have seen more depth in Calvet’s character especially. Brennan, who I know you are a big fan of, adds a nice touch here and not just for humorous effect.

  4. Wendy P. says:

    Thank you for sharing this film, on my list now. Stewart has a dark side indeed – the look he gives Judy in the car at the end of Vertigo? Beats any movie-killer today;)

  5. John Greco says:

    Wendy,

    As I mentioned to Kim above, I think we have been conditioned over the years to see Jimmy Stewart as such a nice guy that when you seen him in a dark role it’s a bit surprising, making it even more effective. Thanks!

  6. Sam Juliano says:

    It’s often asserted that this is the least of the five Mann-Stewart films, but if so, only marginally, as it’s a further purveyor of the helmer’s styles, themes and use of landscape, and it’s showcases a reasonably engrossing story. I saw the film two years back at the Mann Festival in Manhattan and was seduced by the magnificent print, perhaps sufficiently to forgive the issues that you superbly (and rightly) discuss here John. True, it’s not in a league with THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, MAN OF THE WEST and WINCESTER 73, and yes, it’s is behind BEND OF THE RIVER as well, largely because of the weak ending and some pedestrian sequences that hoold up as visual ravishments nonetheless. But Stewart delivers another ‘dark side’ performance, and William Daniels’ color cinematography is gorgeous. And as you note in this exceptionally-penned assessment, THE FAR COUNTRY is a masterful piece of entertainment, which I would say is really the bottom line.

    • John Greco says:

      Agree with you Sam, Anyway you look at it, the film is gorgeously photographed, and well acted, especially by Stewart and I will add in John McIntire too.

  7. Jon says:

    I like this one alot John. Love the dark film noir-like elements and the Alaskan setting. It’s not a fresh and punchy as The Naked Spur, but this one might be my third favorite after Spur, and Winchester. Great analysis here.

    • John Greco says:

      Jon,

      I have not seen an Anthony Mann western that I do not like a lot. The Upper North setting is a nice treat and its dark elements are well done, sepcifically, Stewart and Ruth Roman’s character who make for a good femme fatale.

  8. DorianTB says:

    John, I very much enjoyed your review of THE FAR COUNTRY! I haven’t seen it, but your review intrigued me. Even when a genre film uses familiar tropes, the fun and fascination lies in how those tropes are used, giving the film its own appeal, and that seems to be the case here. Great cast, too; James Stewart’s dark side in Anthony Mann’s Westerns and Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers always makes for compelling viewing. Great post!

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Dorian! I always thought James Stewart was more interesting in his darker roles (not that he is bad in lighter stuff). Visually, he seems to be playing against type when he is in a more conflicting role. I guess, he just looks like a nice guy and then comes out this unexpected somewhat threatening side and it blows you away.

  9. John says:

    I had the opportunity to see this last weekend on the big screen, along with “Red River”. I agree that the story doesn’t match the level of some of the other Mann/Stewart collaborations, but William Daniels’ cinematography nearly equals William Mellor’s from “The Naked Spur”. This also seems like one of the few westerns of that era that realistically portrays the filthiness of frontier life. An early precursor of Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”.

    • John Greco says:

      Hi John and welcome!

      It must have looked majestic on the big screen. I definitely agree with you on “filthiness” look of the film. It does add a nice touch of realism to it all.

      RED RIVER is a great film as is MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER. Thanks!

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