Movie Review – The Far Country (1954)
by NIR SHALEV
Anthony Mann is my favorite Western director. All of his Westerns, or at least most of them depict anti-heroes and bad-guys-turned-good, but The Far Country is quite remarkably different.
James Stewart, who stars in a lot of Mann’s Westerns, plays Jeff Webster, a cattle herder who’s recently shot two of his own men because they tried to rustle some of his cattle. Jeff is not a good person. He’s remarkably immoral and what’s fascinating about him is that he doesn’t seem to recognize the very notion of morality. When others are in trouble, town folk approach him and ask him for help. He replies, “Why? I don’t know them. They’re none of my concern.” The very notion of performing good deeds simply for the sake of it doesn’t interpret itself as a plausible ideal and Jeff is more than an anti-hero. He’s an antagonist that’s opposing the whole world and he’s at the film’s center.
That is until Jeff and his sidekick Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan) reach the city of Skagway, Alaska via a riverboat. There they meet its lawmaker Gannon (John McIntire) and he immediately brandishes his style of lawmaking upon Jeff. He confiscates all of his cattle but lets him go free. Jeff and Ben were originally going to sell the cattle, travel to the city of Dawson, Alaska, buy a gold claim there, and strike it even more rich but their plans were halted because of Gannon, the film’s eventual true antagonist. So Jeff decides to work for Rhonda Castle (Ruth Roman), who practically owns the town of Skagway. His job is to lead her party of travelers to Dawson and once there, she plans to build another version of her town. Jeff doesn’t care about the current inhabitants of Dawson and how Rhonda’s presence would affect them because he gets to go exactly where he wants to and be the boss that he wants to be. Then on the first night, Jeff and Ben sneak back into Skagway and steal back his cattle, finally making an enemy of Gannon. It’s remarkably ironic, but dramatic irony lies at the heart of every Anthony Mann Western.
On the road, trouble’s a-brewing. The main party refuses to travel with Jeff’s cattle because it wasn’t in their original agreement and at another point, when the party decides to take the high mountain road and Jeff decides to take the low, grass filled, six-days-longer route they arrive at an impasse. So Jeff goes his way, the party goes their way, and an avalanche claims a few lives on the mountain road. Jeff, refuses to help them because, “It’s not his problem; they made their choice”. But Jeff knew that the possibility of an avalanche was great. He is indeed a fascinating character and I never hated him, not once. That’s who he is because that’s how he was raised. Gannon was probably born into money so his nature of being a real jerk makes him into a more traditional antagonist while, as the film progresses, Jeff becomes more of an anti-hero. That’s as “good guy” as he’s going to get.
Why this is such a fascinating film for me is because at its core is two very bad people; Jeff, who was raised practically in nature and is hardened and Gannon, who was raised with money and has developed an eternal grin. Jeff has the potential to become a better person because he’s not infatuated with power but Gannon can only get worse. And in accordance with viewer likes and dislikes, Gannon breaks boundaries that even Jeff can’t ignore. The traditional hero’s character arc is stretched so far in this film that Jeff can only become a slightly better person in the fourth act of the film. There usually isn’t such a thing but here I use it as a figure of speech. His transformation, although necessary comes so late in the film that I have to applaud the gall of the screenwriter. He stretched it very far but made it work really well. That’s why this is a unique, dark, and entertaining film though and through.
The Far Country was shot entirely on location in Alberta, Canada and the scenery is breathtaking. We have snowy mountaintops spreading across the backdrops of many of the shots, and there’s a terrific amount of a whole lot o’ nothing. Watching people traveling on horseback for weeks here looks gorgeous, but the film doesn’t steep itself entirely in realism which would result in it becoming a boring film. We don’t watch as these people travel endlessly; we watch the beautiful scenery and listen to how imperfect every individual character is. The screenplay is rather inspiring.
James Stewart is a terrific actor, there’s no denying that. His roles in Mann’s Westerns, his most demanding ones are also his most brilliant ones. In Winchester ’73 (1950), Stewart wins a Winchester 1873 rifle in a shooting contest only to have it stolen by a bad person. So throughout the entire film he chases down the “bad guy” just so he can reclaim his gun. In Bend of the River (1952), he’s an ex-cold-blooded-killer-turned-good-guy who leads a wagon train from one part of the US to another. Along the way, some of his men decide to steal the goods and run off into the hills so that they could sell the goods, buy gold-digging supplies, and get rich. Stewart turns on his dark side and “does the right thing” by hunting the bad men down. James Stewart can pull off the anti-hero character in his sleep and that’s why the Mann/Stewart tag-team is terrific. Stewart starring in Mann’s Westerns is also why most of his Westerns are dark, psychological dramas.
The darkness of the content in the Wild West setting is a great form of escapism and every time that I bring home another Anthony Mann Western I get excited. I never read the back of the DVD case. I just turn on the TV, fire up the Blu-ray player, and enjoy a unique look at good guys and bad guys in the old Wild West.