Action by the wagonload in this masterful piece of high adventure from Anthony Mann. James Stewart plays Glyn McLyntock, an ex-outlaw scouting for a caravan of settlers on their way to Oregon. When the supplies required to hold the settlers over during the winter don’t arrive from Portland, McLyntock drops by to discover the townsfolk rolling like pigs in the newfound wealth of a gold rush. The value of his already paid for stores has skyrocketed, muscling him out of market.
Dodging extortion in a head-over-heels dockside shootout, McLyntock and his friend Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) escape upriver with the goods in a steamboat to continue to their work of seeing the settlers to safety. Treachery, however, is never far away, as the lure of profiteering proves too much for several of McLyntock’s company.
Bend of the River’s journey narrative gives Mann the chance to display his talent for intensely visual storytelling: he makes breathtaking use of the cinematic canvas, focusing on the landscape in order to guide attention back to the human struggles that undermine the lofty dreams it inspires. The film develops several classic Western themes, such as the tension between the pride of building townships and apprehension at what they might become, and the fear of being overrun by the ruthlessness of urbanization even as you succeed in fighting it off in the form of hired goons. Man-with-a-past McLyntock represents the tenuous but irresistible hope that the blank slate of the frontier will allow its inhabitants to change their past. Bend of the River’s landscape is a quasi-spiritual place that can remake a person in their own idealized self-image. Greed and betrayal can make it here too, however, and we are constantly reminded that some leopards have no intention of changing their spots.
The film’s representation of the settler dream is dominated by the poetics of complicity with nature rather than conquest of it, and the grace of the steamboat that carries McLyntock and co. contrasts mournfully with the squalid image of “civilization” presented by early Portland. The increasing ubiquity of gold, however—as a natural product itself—is linked with urban inflation and corruption. The film uses this subtly forged connection to question the ideal of a simple, frontier life, and to hint at the Western dream’s inevitable decline.
Bend of the River’s drawbacks are minimal and their mention also risks their unfair exaggeration. Nevertheless, score and image are occasionally mismatched, particularly during the confrontation with the natives. And although this scene showcases some of the film’s more intrepid camerawork, the role of the natives is questionably limited to frightening and chameleonic reminders of the “wildness” of the natural environment.
What is ultimately so engaging about Mann’s film is its combination of subtle, personal and communal crises and joyously hell-or-high-water narrative pacing. Bend of the River is no high-flown think-piece: it’s a down home adventure with bucking horses, roaring rifles and a blockbuster final act that swashbuckles with the best of them. 5 / 5