The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - THE FAR COUNTRY (1954) | The Movie Waffler

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Blu-Ray Review - THE FAR COUNTRY (1954)

the far country review
A narcissistic gunslinger's attempts to settle down are thwarted by a crooked judge on the Canadian border.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Anthony Mann

Starring: James Stewart, Ruth Roman, Walter Brennan, Corinne Calvet, John McIntire, Jay C. Flippen, Harry Morgan

the far country bluray




There's been much talk recently of the dangers streaming services pose to film history with their recency bias when it comes to the movies they choose to offer their subscribers. There are currently no movies starring Jimmy Stewart on Netflix UK. Let that sink in. The world's biggest streaming service carries no movies starring arguably American cinema's greatest star. No wonder then that so many people have a vision of Stewart as a sort of "golly gosh" boy next door figure, one that erases the many psychologically dark characters he essayed. I think this idea of Stewart comes from him rushing through the streets shouting "Merry Christmas" in It's a Wonderful Life, as that clip, which really doesn't represent the depth of the film it's taken from, represents the sum experience of most viewers when it comes to Stewart's oeuvre. Today, Tom Hanks is often called the modern Jimmy Stewart, but Hanks has yet to explore his dark side in the way Stewart so often did.

Stewart was never more twisted than when he made westerns with director Anthony Mann. They made five together, and while 1954's The Far Country is easily the weakest of the quintet, it's nonetheless replete with the delights that came whenever the star and filmmaker worked together.


the far country review


Stewart is Jeff Webster, who like so many western anti-heroes, has developed an insular nature, weary and cautious of others. And like so many western anti-heroes, he has a sidekick played by Walter Brennan, Ben Tatem. With dreams of settling down on a ranch in Utah, Webster and Tatem have devised a plan to drive their cattle herd to Dawson City in Canada's harsh Yukon Territory, figuring the territory's gold rush will fetch them a hefty price for the beasts.

In the Alaskan border town of Skagway, Webster makes an enemy of the local judge, Gannon (John McIntire), by disrupting a hanging. Gannon confiscates Webster's herd, leaving himself and Tatem flat broke. But Webster isn't taking this lying down, and after crossing the border with a group of travellers led by sultry saloon owner Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman), he sneaks back in the dead of night and retrieves his cattle, killing several of Gannon's men in the process.

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If Webster believed he was leaving such violence behind in the US, he was as misled about Canadian hospitality as the average modern viewer is about Stewart's screen persona. In Dawson City he finds more lawlessness, with unscrupulous opportunists - including Gannon, who has followed Webster with his best gunslinger (Robert J. Wilke) in tow - robbing decent folks of their gold mining claims. With no real law in the town to speak of, the townsfolk look to Webster to take up the position of Marshall, which he promptly declines, planning to get away from the town once he's sold his cattle and dug some gold out of its soil.


the far country review


The Far Country doesn't lend itself easily to a succinct summary of its premise, as the plot doesn't really kick in until its third act. Prior to that point it's something of a rambling narrative, and it's difficult to get a handle on its character dynamics. For a long time we're never quite sure if we like Webster, and he certainly doesn't make himself easy to warm to. Similarly, Gannon is far from a clear cut villain, and in a more conservative western he might easily be positioned as the hero, a tough, non-nonsense man willing to break rules to maintain order in his town. Four decades later, Clint Eastwood did something similar with Gene Hackman's Sheriff in Unforgiven and won an Oscar, but in 1954 Mann's morally ambiguous lawman likely wasn't so easily digested.

The plot of The Far Country might be summed up as a reversal of the High Noon dynamic. Instead of one man seeking help from the rest of his town, here we have a town looking to a single man to step up and protect them. It's ironic that High Noon was thought of as communist propaganda, as it shows people refusing to work in unison, unlike Mann's film, which preaches the idea that community is more important than making a fortune for yourself. Only by rejecting capitalism and self-interest does Webster finally find peace here.

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Mann understood the concept of male pride, which is so interwoven in the fabric of the western, in a way High Noon director Fred Zinneman, an interloper using the genre to push a political idea, failed to grasp. Compare the scene in High Noon in which Gary Cooper's marshall dismisses an offer of help from the town drunk, giving him money to get sloshed in the local saloon, with the moment in The Far Country in which Webster humiliates Dawson's town drunk, who has stepped up to the role of lawman, by intervening in a confrontation with Gannon's murderous right hand man. Mann plays his scene as a damning indictment of Webster's character, emasculating an old man on a quest for some redemption at the tail end of his wasted life, while Zinneman mistakenly believes his similar scenario portrays Cooper in a saintly light.


the far country review


Two potential love interests are set up for Webster in Roman's tough saloon owner and Renee (Corinne Calvert), a young French girl who follows him around in puppy-like fashion. But Webster doesn't seem interested in either, making it clear to both wannabe suitors that he prefers his own company. You get the sense that in Ronda he sees a little too much of himself, someone who has become hardened by life in the West, while in Renee he sees the exact opposite, an innocence he doesn't wish to corrupt.

The film's one relationship of true depth is that between Webster and Tatem. Brennan is essentially playing the same role here for Mann as he so often did for Howard Hawks, that of the moral conscience of the protagonist. In Webster's most sociopathic moment, he refuses to go to the aid of a group of travellers who have succumbed to an avalanche. Tatem looks at him with the disappointment of a mother whose son has just been brought home in a police car. "You're wrong Jeff," he laments, those three words cutting through the viewer's soul thanks to Brennan's incredible ability to say so much with so little. Webster looks at his longtime companion and is forced to agree. Does he give in to Tatem's appeal due to an attack of conscience or because he can't bear to upset Tatem? My guess is the latter. If more of us had a Walter Brennan by our side, the world might be a kinder place.
Extras:

The choice of two aspect ratios (1.85:1 or 2:1; I would opt for the former as information is lost at the top of the screen on the latter); feature commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin; American Frontiers: Anthony Mann at Universal, a feature-length documentary with film historian Alan K. Rode, western author C. Courtney Joyner, script supervisor Michael Preece, and critics Michael Schlesinger and Rob Word; an appraisal of Anthony Mann's westerns by critic Kim Newman; original trailer; image gallery.

The Far Country is on blu-ray now from Arrow Academy.






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