US Release Date: 02-13-1952
Directed by: Anthony Mann
- James Stewart, as
- Glyn McLyntock
- Arthur Kennedy, as
- Emerson Cole
- Julie Adams, as
- Laura Baile
- Rock Hudson, as
- Trey Wilson
- Lori Nelson, as
- Marjie Baile
- Jay C. Flippen, as
- Jeremy Baile
- Howard Petrie, as
- Tom Hendricks
- Chubby Johnson, as
- Captain Mello
- Stepin Fetchit, as
- Harry Morgan, as
- Jack Lambert, as
- Royal Dano, as
- Long Tom
- Frances Bavier as
- Mrs. Prentiss
Rock Hudson, Arthur Kennedy and James Stewart in Bend of the River.
Bend of the River was the second of five westerns James Stewart made with director Anthony Mann between 1950 and 1955. It was during this period of his career that Stewart began to toughen up his nice guy image. He began to play more ruthless types with less than noble pasts. Such is the case here. He plays Glyn McLyntock, a former border raider with a violent streak. As the movie opens he's acting as a scout for a wagon train of settlers on the Oregon Trail.
He comes across a man about to be hanged and impulsively saves his life. This man turns out to be Emerson Cole (Kennedy), who, like McLyntock, has a violent past. Theirs is the central relationship in the story. Together they save the wagon train from a Shoshone Indian attack, although one young woman named Laura Baile (Adams) takes an arrow to the shoulder – but survives.
They make it to Portland, where the wounded woman stays behind to recuperate. The rest of the wagon train heads out to establish a settlement in the wilderness. Gold is suddenly discovered and the winter supplies meant for the new settlers are instead resold at a much higher price. McLyntock takes the supplies anyway and is soon being hunted down by a posse of angry miners as he tries to get back to the settlement. There is plenty of action along the way.
The theme of Bend of the River is whether or not a man can change. The characters played by Stewart and Kennedy are both former criminals who claim to have gone straight. J.C. Flippen plays the father of the girl who gets shot with an arrow. He doesn't believe a man can change his stripes. As he sees it once a man is rotten he's like an apple that must be removed from the barrel before it infects the other apples.
James Stewart has several great scenes that demonstrate the duality in McLyntock's nature. When he is betrayed at one point he delivers the movie's most famous bit of dialogue, his voice dripping with venom. “You'll be seeing me. Every time you bed down for the night, you'll look back in the darkness and wonder if I'm there. And some night, I will be. You'll be seeing me!” In one scene in the middle of a scuffle he has subdued another man but he savagely raises his knife to brutally stab him anyway. Only Laura's scream stops Glyn from committing cold blooded murder.
Bend of the River was shot on location in Oregon. It features breathtaking scenery in glorious Technicolor. Anthony Mann was one of the great western directors in Hollywood history. Although less heralded than the John Wayne/John Ford combination, Stewart and Mann made an incredibly important contribution to the most American of all film genres.
The supporting cast also includes a young Rock Hudson on the cusp of stardom. He plays a gambler from San Francisco who finds himself caught up in the plight of these settlers. Prolific character actors Jack Lambert and Royal Dano both have substantial roles as treacherous hired men. Two future television stars have small roles as well. Harry Morgan plays another of the bad guys. He would become famous later for two television series, Dragnet and MASH. Frances Bavier has a few scenes as Mrs. Prentiss. She is better known today as Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show.
The controversial black entertainer Stepin Fetchit (real name Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry) plays the cabin boy on the riverboat used to transport the supplies to the settlement. Although he has often been criticized for his lazy, dimwitted persona it has been acknowledged by some that this was actually a radical act. Using his shuffling gait and speaking gibberish to undermine the white man. The true insult being that many whites took him at face value.
Bend of the River was based on the novel Bend of the Snake by Bill Gulick. Together Anthony Mann and James Stewart crafted it into a memorable motion picture. While not as well remembered as Winchester '73 it is a solidly entertaining western with a great cast, plenty of rip-roaring action, and tons of beautiful background scenery.
James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy in Bend of the River.
One of the problems with too many Westerns from this era is that they tend to be of epic length. Howard Hawks's Red River, which this movie is often compared to, is over 2 hours in length, for instance, as many of Hawks's Western tend to be. In contrast, this movie, and the other four Westerns director Anthony Mann made with Jimmy Stewart, runs right around 90 minutes. In my opinion this is the perfect length for most movies, especially for one with as simple a tale as this one. It's a a short, breezy, and enjoyable story that stops when it should, never outstaying its welcome.
As Patrick mentioned, in Stewart's Westerns of the 1950s and later, he toughened his usual character up a bit. Here he is the good guy, but he's no saint. It's mentioned that he was a Missouri Raider in the past, as was Arthur Kennedy's Emerson Cole. The term is bandied around in the movie without explanation, but essentially this means that the two men were part of the unofficial, pro-Confederate forces known as Quantrill's Raiders who operated a guerrilla warfare style of combat during the Civil War in Missouri. The most famous members of this group in real life were Frank and Jesse James.
Stewart's onscreen persona as a nice guy brings extra baggage to the role that works in his favor. His natural likablilty and "aw shucks" good guy image, puts us on his side right away, despite the proof almost from the beginning that he's a man capable of action and killing. It makes him more human. Had John Wayne or Clint Eastwood delivered the "I'll be there..." speech that Patrick mentioned, we wouldn't be surprised at all. We would expect nothing less. Coming from Stewart though, it carries an entirely different kind of weight.
Arthur Kennedy, who appeared in so many different movies of the era without ever really becoming a major movie star, is equally effective as Cole. He's charming and dangerous. Of course this isn't the most subtle of movies and it's easy to see the destiny of his and Stewart's character from the film's first reel.
The supporting cast is fine. I laughed when Harry Morgan appeared. I think this is the youngest I've ever seen him and he was already 37. The two female actresses, Julie Adams and Lori Nelson, are both attractive, but look much more 1952 than 1872. As for Stepin Fetchit, his performance seems irony-free to me, and purely stereotypical, but as Hattie McDaniel was famous for saying, "I'd rather play a maid than be one."
I agree with Patrick about the scenery. It's nice to see a Western that wasn't shot in Monument Valley or a facsimile thereof. Too many Westerns seem to imply that everything West of the Mississippi is desert, when of course the landscape is incredibly varied. It's nice to see that represented here and in full color, on location.
Perhaps this isn't a classic Western, but it is a highly entertaining one.
Photos © Copyright Universal Pictures (1952)