When we (yours truly) collected delinquent loan payments for a finance company, we heard many stories about why payments were late and how things would be Different from Now On.
Some folks made good on these pledges, while others pretended to improve so they could devise new ways to not pay.
At times we wondered if it was possible for some people to change for the better.
The 1952 western, Bend of the River, asks the same question, although, as entertainment, this film is a bit lopsided. The Oregon scenery is gorgeous in Technicolor, but there are racial stereotypes and cringing attempts at humour.
Even so, it’s compelling. James Stewart stars as a scout/leader for group of homesteaders looking to settle in a remote area of the Oregon Territory. They are hard-working folk who want to raise cattle, grow crops, and Mind Their Own Business.
On one of his scouting trips, Stewart encounters a group of men preparing to hang a horse thief (Arthur Kennedy). Without asking questions, Stewart immediately fires his rifle, which startles everyone – man and horse – and Kennedy manages to escape.
As the pair ride to the homesteaders’ camp, we see how the narrative will gel, along with the Uneasy Truce between Stewart and Kennedy. Turns out Kennedy knows Stewart by reputation and is genuinely surprised he’s mixing with a bunch of farmers.
Kennedy, with an oily charm, claims he didn’t steal any horses if that makes a difference, and Stewart says it doesn’t. But he also warns Kennedy that he’s pledged to protect the farmers No Matter What.
We’re immediately knocked off-kilter by this exchange. We don’t fully trust Kennedy, but can we trust Stewart? Does he really not care about Kennedy’s past?
Apparently not; Stewart is offering the chance to Start Again. The question is: What will Kennedy do with it?
Bend of the River is sometimes called a western noir because it embraces noir elements, such as Stewart’s unspoken-about past, and the uncertainty about who is the Good Guy. Even though this film does not take place in a large urban centre, like conventional films noir, it features racketeering and organized crime.
There’s also the pervasive oppression, such as the fast-approaching winter or the greed of mutinous labourers. There’s not a moment’s peace for these beleaguered farmers.
This film is the second collaboration between Stewart and director Anthony Mann. Critics say this film reveals a darker, more violent Stewart, but this wasn’t the first time Stewart portrayed a character of desperation (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) or aggressive despair (It’s a Wonderful Life).
As for Mann, he was an influential director in the 1950s. The AMC website says, “Director Anthony Mann defined the cowboys of the ’50s, creating what critics dubbed the psychological Western. Taking a note from film noir, Mann’s heroes were…desperate to come to terms with their own torment — often by battling villains who were all too similar to themselves.”¹
Despite its flaws, AMC ranks Bend of the River #3 in their Top Ten list of Mann westerns, which is saying a lot. Many regard the Mann-Stewart collaborations as some of the best westerns ever made.
Even though this film has a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes, it received poor critical reviews when first released. Oddly, though, the normally-dismissive Bosley Crowther of the New York Times had mild praise it. “[I]t comes down to…Mr. Stewart versus Mr. Kennedy,” he wrote. “Both actors are first-rate performers when it comes to slinging guns and giving a general impression of cryptic personalities.”²
Themes of Starting Again flow through every scene in Bend of the River. For instance, the farmers strive for a new life in the Oregon Territory, while insurgent labourers strive for wealth. The most striking examples lie with Kennedy and Stewart, and the choices each man makes.
It’s a cynical yet hopeful film and, if you don’t expect too much, we think you’ll find it worthwhile.
¹AMC. (Retrieved January 1, 2020.) Noir on the Range, by Stacy Black.
²New York Times. (Retrieved January 1, 2020.) ‘Bend of the River,’ a Western Starring James Stewart, Opens at Paramount, by Bosley Crowther.
Bend of the River: starring James Stuart, Arthur Kennedy, Julia Adams. Directed by Anthony Mann. Written by Borden Chase. Universal International, 1952, Technicolor, 91 mins.