August 28, 2016

filmsgraded.com:
Bend of the River (1952)
Grade: 65/100

Director: Anthony Mann
Stars: James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Jay C. Flippen

What it's about. James Stewart leads a wagon trail of pioneer settlers to Oregon. The settlers include gruff Jay C. Flippen, his two grow comely daughters Julie Adams and Lori Nelson, and many others, such as the future Aunt Bea, Frances Bavier. Along the way, James Stewart saves grinning Arthur Kennedy from a lynching, which proves wise after Kennedy helps defends the wagon trail against an Indian attack.

The settlers stop at Portland to purchase supplies, then journey into the country on a steamboat owned by Chubby Johnson and his comic first mate Stepin Fetchit. As winter approaches, the supplies have yet to be delivered. Stewart returns to Portland, and learns that gold fever has struck the area. Store owner Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie) refuses to surrender the paid-for supplies, which have greatly increased in value due to demand and inflation.

A shoot-out ensues. Kennedy and gambler Rock Hudson side with Stewart, and depart with Flippen and Adams for the settlement, pursued by Hendricks and his gunmen. Stewart has hired a mutinous crew, led by Harry Morgan, who try to convince Kennedy to turn the settler's supplies over to gold miners for a handsome payoff.

How others will see it. James Stewart made his share of westerns, and this is one of the more action-filled outings, although less heralded than Winchester '73, Destry Rides Again, or, for that matter, The Shootist. It is typically forgotten that Stewart's last film was a western, providing the voice of a cartoon mouse in Fievel Goes West (1991).

Bend of the River drew little notice in 1952, but it did make money for Universal, and has appeared on television a great many times over the years. At imdb.com, the film has a reasonable 5641 user votes and a respectable 7.4 user rating, highest among viewers over age 45. Fans of the movie acknowledge its formulaic aspects, but appreciate the action and acting, nonetheless.

How I felt about it. Bend of the River was the second collaboration between director Anthony Mann and A-list actor James Stewart. They had made Winchester '73 two years before, and that film had been a considerable critical success. Thus, Bend of the River must have appeared promising to viewers back in 1952, although the movie had to be good, or it would disappoint.

That was the ultimate outcome. It was ignored by film festivals, and was not a box office triumph. Nonetheless, Stewart and Mann made six more films together, including three westerns (The Naked Spur, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie) similar in many ways to Bend of the River. Stewart knew he was aging out of romantic leading roles, and sought to establish himself as a tough (but ultimately heroic) guy. Mann understood this, which explains their partnership through 1955.

Rock Hudson was also signed to Universal, and his career was on the rise. This explains his supporting role in Bend of the River, in which he gets the girl while Stewart does not. But Stewart never wanted the girl anyway. By the 1950s, she was merely someone who needed to be saved from bad guys.

Stewart does fine in the movie, although his character is less believable than in Winchester '73. Here, he is completely incorruptible, willing to repeatedly risk his life instead of selling stolen goods to the gold miners for a huge profit. He's too good to be true, and for that matter, so are Jay C. Flippen and his perfect grown brunette daughter, Julie Adams, best known for as the monster's Fay Wray in Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Stepin Fetchit's character is embarrassing from the vantage point of our more politically correct era, even though Sidney Poitier had already begun to change the screen image of blacks in No Way Out (1950). Bend of the River has its share of stupid bad guys in secondary roles, most memorably Henry Morgan, there to demonstrate the time-honored canard that crime and dissipation does not pay. Tell that with a straight face to anyone who works in Wall Street, and watch their reaction.

The moral of the movie is that some men can change their ways, and others can't. Jimmy Stewart, of course, will do the right thing, even though he is willing to kill in self-defense if necessary, something that Julie Adams likely would not do. On the bubble are Rock Hudson and Arthur Kennedy, the latter much more so than the former. It seems that Kennedy goes after the Indians with Stewart, and also guns down the pursuing gang of Tom Hendricks, because he enjoys killing and needs little excuse. Finally, greed gets the best of him, although he is never completely bad, since he spares the life of Stewart and Hudson when he has the jump on them.

It should be noted that the screenplay was written by Border Chase, who also wrote the screenplay and source short story for Red River (1948), another western and one of the greatest films ever made. Chase also served as a writer for Winchester '73 and another of Stewart's western vehicles, The Far Country.