“Nobody ever did anything for nothing.”
It’s a Western with a twist. Instead of men driving cattle across a dusty landscape, men drive cattle across the chilly tundra. It’s also a cautionary tale about monopolies that thrive by squeezing out the little guy.
In The Far Country, Stewart is a cowboy who, along with his partner (Walter Brennan), ships a herd of cattle to Skagway during the Klondike Gold Rush. They intend to drive the cattle across the Canadian border to Dawson, where they’ll sell the beef at a tidy profit.
But when Stewart and Brennan arrive in Skagway, they clash with a mercenary sheriff (John Mcintyre), a defiant man who controls local market pricing and the supply route to Dawson. Nobody in this town makes money without paying him a share, even if he did none of the work and carried none of the risk. He’s a bossy, expensive freeloader.
The other Captain of Industry in town is Roman, to whom Stewart is attracted. Roman is an entrepreneurial femme fatale – a woman who understands vice will always be the most lucrative business. Her establishment conducts all sorts of activities, such as drinking, gold trading, card playing and, uh, social opportunities with young ladies.
There’s always more money to be made, and Roman is expanding her business across the Canadian border. The good citizens of Dawson are not happy about the influx of disruptive Americans but, with a shortage of manpower, there’s little local officials can do.
To Sum: No police + Lots of gold = Roman’s perfect business environment.
In examining Roman’s character, we must examine her wardrobe. She almost exclusively wears gowns; in-your-face expensive gowns; gowns that would need a team of people to upkeep.
She wears them for Political Reasons. No other female character in this film can afford such attire; the other women live hardscrabble lives. And notice the ground in this film. Floors are caked in sawdust and Dawson’s streets are canals of mud. You’d have to be crazy – or very rich – to schlep around in such a get-up.
Yet, in every scene, Roman’s hems are mud and sawdust free, which sets her apart from everyone else. Her pristine hems tell you she’s above every one and every thing. Nothing can touch her; just you try.
Here’s a snapshot of Roman at work: Once Stewart and Brennan arrive in Dawson with their cattle, the town is ecstatic. “I’m gonna get me a steak about 10 inches thick,” says one man.
The woman who runs the local eatery approaches Stewart about the price of his beef. She offers $1.00 a pound, and is immediately outbid by Roman, who drives the price so high only she herself can afford it. If folks want a 10-inch steak, they’ll be paying her for it.
The Far Country is an absorbing film in many ways. Firstly, the exteriors were shot in Canada’s Jasper National Park, including scenes that were filmed at the famous Athabasca Glacier.
Secondly, it has an absorbing plot, one that chronicles the effects of corruption. Director Anthony Mann brings a noir edge to the film, where powerful (business) gangsters make all the rules with little thought for human life.
Thirdly, Roman and Stewart are great sparring partners. Stewart’s character, like many of his post-WWII roles, is a bitter man who wrestles with his motives. Roman, on the other hand, never loses sleep; she bases every decision on The Bottom Line.
With the themes it explores, The Far Country is still a relevant film that deserves more attention than it receives. We encourage you to see this lesser-known gem.
The Far Country: starring James Stewart, Ruth Roman, Corinne Calvet. Directed by Anthony Mann. Written by Borden Chase. Universal-International Pictures, 1954, Colour, 97 mins.