Monday, October 9, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Far Country" (1954)

James Stewart and director Anthony Mann made eight films together between 1950 and 1955, five of them Westerns that have stood the test of time, with "Winchester '73" probably the best known of the bunch. Though the stories are very different, there are a lot of thematic similarities, with Stewart usually playing an ornery loner who comes to recognize that he can't completely detach himself from society without suffering an ill fate.

His Jeff Webster from 1954's "The Far Country" is a prime example. A doggedly independent cattle driver who throws off any attempt to yoke him to a place or a people, Jeff's credo is, "I can take care of myself." He repeatedly rejects calls to act in an altruistic way, believing that if can look after himself, then others should do the same for themselves.

Of course, in the end he must rely upon others to survive, and in turn is motivated to take up arms to protect them against other gunmen who are much like his old self.

What's truly interesting about "The Far Country" is what's left unsaid. Screenwriter Borden Chase, who also penned the scripts for "Winchester '73" and another Stewart/Mann Western, "Bend of the River," gives his characters a distinctive sense of presence without necessarily an explicit backstory to go with it. That we must fill in ourselves.

We don't know much about Jeff Webster, other than he came from Wyoming, is driving a herd of cattle up to Alaska, and plans to use the proceeds to buy a ranch in Utah with his longtime companion, Ben Tatem, a cantankerous oldster from the Walter Brennan stock of cowboys, miners and soldiers.

Ben walks with a hitch, wear a hat with an upturned brim, speaks in a squawky yodel, can do most anything with his hands but doesn't have a lot of sense. His tendency to amiably gab about most anything repeatedly gets the duo in trouble, most notably his buying of two pounds of coffee grounds the day after buying two more, which raises eyebrows and suspicions that turn fatal.

Why Ben is the only person Jeff seems to have any attachment to remains a total mystery, even after Ben is killed off about three-quarters of the way through the movie. (Sorry, no spoiler warnings after 63 years.) Jeff will even affectionately grab Ben's chin or cheek and light his pipe for him, pledging to protect him and look after him in his doddering years.

Clearly they have history together, but its nature remains doggedly obscured. They actually once owned a spread together, but Jeff got the itch to wander again, and off they want, pursuing the bird in the bush they already had in hand. Jeff took the tinkly little bell that Ben hung over their door and attached it to his saddle horn, which becomes his quirk and calling card.

There's not a lot to the story, which is more driven by character clashes than anything else. Jeff and Ben arrive in Seattle with a small herd of cattle that they intend to ferry up to Skagway, Alaska, and then on to the gold rush town of Dawson. The film is set in 1896, long after the California rushes had played out, but while there was still plenty of color to be had panning the streams up north.

(I'm not sure if there were budget constraints on the film, but Mann struggles to achieve any shots where it looks like there's more than 20 steers.)

There are two cowhands with them who are paid $100 apiece, and clearly want to plug Jeff in the back now that the job is done. It seems two other fellows tried to ride off with part of the herd and Jeff shot them down. They report him to the local authorities, who arrive to arrest Jeff just after the ferry has departed. Jeff hides out in the state room of a wealthy woman, Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman), and a romance ensues that simmers the rest of the movie.

Things go poorly when they arrive in Alaska. The ferrymen try to extort Ben and a new addition, the lawman-turned-drunkard Rube Morris (Jay C. Flippen), out of $5,000 in bogus fees. But Jeff rides the cows right off the boat ramp into town, where they jostle the hangman's gallows the local lawman, Judge Gannon (John McIntire), has built to string up three men.

In short order, Gannon has confiscated the herd as a fine for disrupting the execution. It quickly becomes clear that Gannon is little more than a local robber-baron, using the mantle of the law to confiscate property to add to his growing wealth and influence. It turns out that Miss Castle is his partner, running the Skagway Castle saloon as part of his empire designed to gyp gold miners. For instance, Gannon has a local law that no one can depart town without at least 100 pounds of food, and he owns the only grocery.

Castle is sent ahead to Dawson to establish a base there, with Jeff and Ben's cattle as grubstake. Castle hires Jeff as driver of his own herd, along with add-on cowboys (including Harry Morgan.) There are dangers and arguments along the way, including an avalanche where Jeff initially refuses to help those trapped.

Acting as his conscious is Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet), a strong-headed French/Canadian ingenue who also sets her adoring gaze upon Jeff. The love triangle continues throughout the rest of the story, with Jeff manfully displaying absolutely no interest in either one of the women.

(I'm sure a critic writing from a queer perspective would have a field day with this film.)

Things go fine for a while in Dawson, with Jeff stealing back his herd from Castle, and her then buying it back for him, outbidding the local hash house run by three tough older gals: Hominy (Connie Gilchrist), Grits (Kathleen Freeman) and Molasses (Connie Van). With the hastily put-up Dawson Castle serving steaks and the trio of ladies stuck with bear stew, Gannon quickly has a foothold.

Soon he'll show up himself in his top hat and mortician's suit, laying claim to gold claims that aren't his. He rounds himself up some muscle, including Morgan and google-eyed Jack Elam, and personally guns down good-natured miner, Dusty (Chubby Johnson), when he tries to stand up to him. He also backs down Rube, who has been tapped as marshal (after Jeff refuses the job).

Jeff parlays his cattle proceeds into a prosperous claim of his own, planning to split town as soon as he and Ben have enough gold for their Utah dreams. Gannon's men are staking themselves outside town to jump departing miners at Two Mile Pass, but Jeff has a plan to take a secret Indian route along the river. But then Ben blabs about the coffee, he's killed and Jeff is shot up.

Nursed back to health by Renee, with a little assistance from Castle, Jeff finally sees the error of his ways and opts to take on Gannon in an obligatory showdown.

The relationship between Gannon and Jeff is rich with subtleties. They take an instant like to each other, despite the consistently oppositional nature of their encounters. They are closely aligned in skillset and their belief that people should rise or file by dint of their own willingness to stand up for themselves and claim what's theirs.

The difference is that while Jeff is a pure individualist, preferring to "find his own trails," Gannon uses the pioneer code as cover to mask his malevolent manipulations. Despite his title of Judge and position as the law, he really thrives on chaos and bullying. Gannon represents the evil that prospers when good men like Jeff do nothing, concerning themselves with themselves.

(Screenwriter Chase doubtlessly based Gannon on legendary Western con man "Soapy" Smith, who operated in a number of places including Skagway, where he was eventually gunned down in a dispute over a bag of stolen gold flakes. Though Soapy preferred to have lawmen on his payroll rather than wear a badge and a gun himself.)

"The Far Country" is really a tidy morality tale that acts as counterpoint to the classic John Wayne type of Western, where a man's gotta be a man, and womenfolk stay put in the background -- preferably the kitchen.

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