Jimmy Stewart was in a lot of Westerns. From Destry Rides Again (1939) all the way to The Shootist (1976), the actor’s continual returns to the frontier nearly end up signposting the decades-long rise and fall of the genre itself. In the early 1960s, just prior to the introduction of a violent revisionism courtesy of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, Stewart teamed with John Ford and turned out classics like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and How the West was Won. Prior to that, as the Western was enjoying its heyday in the 1950s, Stewart starred in the progressive-for-the-time Broken Arrow and in a string of Westerns from director Anthony Mann, including the eventual classic Winchester ’73. But the most underrated Stewart Western — and maybe one of the most underrated Westerns period — is another feature from Mann called Bend of the River.
It’s an unlikely candidate for that mantle, maybe, if only for the lack of stereotypical Western tropes. Stewart stars as Glyn McLyntock, a tough cowboy who puts himself at risk to ensure a delivery of supplies reaches a budding homestead in the Northwest Frontier. The route takes him by valley and mountainside, through Portland, and back and forth across the eponymous river, all the while accompanied by friend and foe of varying loyalties. This question of loyalty — who’s the real villain? —is very much at the heart of Bend, and the guessing game we play as viewer is a big part of what makes the film so great. (Also, it must be noted, “Glyn McLyntock” is an all-timer of a character name.)
In an unending sea of film Westerns that look and feel the same, following gritty bandits or heart-of-gold lawmen through one-road towns and sunny, sandy deserts, the unique setting of Bend of the River sets it apart before we even consider the plot. The vistas of the Pacific Northwest hearken back to the birth of the Western, to those earliest film exercises of the 1920s, before the Golden Age of the Western. These were “Easterns”, technically, largely filmed on the other side of the Mississippi in the days before Hollywood’s California roots really took hold. And like those cinematic forebears, the sense of wide open space — something that would soon become a defining feature of the Western — is mostly absent from Bend of the River. The heavily-wooded forests, crowded riverboats and meandering mountain trails all play into the feeling of danger around the next corner, and they’re a refreshing break from the usual Western locales.
Winchester ’73 was the Stewart/Mann collaboration that started their longstanding partnership, and that classic predated Bend by two years. The influence is clear, despite both films standing on their own two legs at the end of the day. In the same way that Winchester plays out on a razor’s edge, with the rifle bouncing from character to character, always just out of reach, so too does Bend thrive on the shifting role of the film’s antagonist. The most recent film I can think of to attempt the same is Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, which holds up Kevin Spacey’s character as the villain before pivoting to Jamie Foxx’s character and then, finally, landing on Jon Hamm’s character as the last big boss. But those characters were all villains already, to some degree. Bend of the River does the same with a collection of potential good guys, and as in Winchester ’73 the life-or-death stakes at play are what drives these men and women into villainy.
Casting Jimmy Stewart as the protagonist in such a film is no accident, then, because he’d already taken strides to reshape his image in a different light by the early ’50s. The do-no-wrong goodie-two-shoes Stewart of the ’40s (à la It’s a Wonderful Life) was replaced by characters of a darker sensibility, men with checkered pasts and morals, hence the actor’s fruitful relationship with the macabre Alfred Hitchcock. He’s still Jimmy Stewart, mind you, so Bend‘s Glyn is still pretty darn likable in spite of his tough demeanor. But the capacity for immorality in Stewart’s Glyn heightens the question of the film’s antagonist, because a man like that should theoretically be able to recognize villainy in another. If Glyn were more of a hapless, well-meaning buffoon like George Bailey, the villainous twists might easily be chalked up to Glyn’s obliviousness.
As Bend of the River is a massively underrated Western, so too is its director Anthony Mann a sort of unsung hero of the genre (at least today — seventy years ago, post-Winchester, he enjoyed a strong reputation). His visual flourishes throughout Bend are stunning, especially in Technicolor, and yet they play a narrative role as well. The roiling river provides a somewhat obvious setting for the film’s final confrontation, but in the context of the hero and villain of the piece and Bend‘s themes of redemption, it’s a marvel to watch Glyn washed clean by the flowing waters near the film’s close. Plenty of Westerns have beautiful cinematography, but few manage to pair theme with those visuals so effectively. Mann’s other films may have achieved greater popularity, but Bend of the River remains one of the best the genre has to offer.