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.