Directed By: Anthony Mann
Starring: James Stewart, Rock Hudson, Arthur Kennedy
Tag line: "The greatness...the glory...the fury...of the Northwest Frontier!"
Trivia: Some of the river scenes were filmed on the Sacramento river in northern California
James Stewart certainly played his share of nice guys throughout his career, from town banker George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life to the uber-friendly and gloriously insane lead in Harvey. But during the handful of westerns he made with director Anthony Mann, the actor stretched his boundaries a bit, giving his “aw shucks” persona a rest in order to portray dark, conflicted characters. In short, he was a bad-ass in these movies, and 1952’s Bend of the River was no exception.
Glenn McLintock (Stewart) is leading a wagon train of settlers westward to Oregon, where they hope to build a new life for themselves. While out scouting for a possible shortcut, he interrupts the lynching of Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy), who has been accused of cattle rustling. Not willing to sit back and watch a man hanged by his neck, McLintock rescues Cole, and the two become fast friends. Following an Indian attack, during which Laura (Julia Adams), the daughter of settler Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen), is injured, the band of travelers makes its way to Portland, where they meet gambler Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson) and riverboat captain Mello (Chubby Johnson), among others.
It’s here that McLintock and Cole part ways (Cole talks of heading to California to look for gold, while McLintock is determined to help Baile and the others build a community in the Oregon wilderness). After striking a deal with Portland businessman Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie), paying him in advance for supplies to be delivered to their new settlement just before winter, McLintock and the pioneers press on, leaving Laura behind to recover from her wounds.
Several months pass, and the settlers, having reached their ultimate destination, are worried because Hendricks has yet to show up with their supplies. To find out what’s happened, McLintock and Baile return to Portland, where they discover a town now booming thanks to the recent gold rush. Cole (who never did get to California) and Trey Wilson have opened up their own casino, and are raking in tons of money. What’s more, Cole is now romantically involved with the fully-recovered Laura, and plans to marry her as soon as possible. To make matters worse, Hendricks, realizing the gold prospectors will pay him more, has reneged on his promise, and refuses to release the supplies. This leads to a showdown in the streets of Portland, during which McLintock, aided by Cole and Trey Wilson, steals the supplies and escapes on Captain Mello’s boat. But before they reach the new settlement, McLintock and Baile will learn that Hendricks isn’t the only one suffering from “Gold Fever”.
As played by Stewart, McLintock is an honorable man who always keeps his word, but there are hints that he’s also running from his past (he was a raider during the Civil War, and did things he clearly isn’t proud of). Helping Baile and the others is his way of setting things straight, but don’t think for a minute that McLintock’s desire to change has weakened his resolve in any way. During the attack that injured Laura, he and Cole rush into the surrounding woods to take on the Indians, with each man saving the others’ life before the melee is over. In addition, McLintock gets ornery as hell when someone double-crosses him (as Hendricks quickly discovers). Stewart does a remarkable job bringing this complex character to life, embodying the decency as well as the inner fire that steers his actions.
Yet as good as Stewart is, it’s the overall flow of the film, the organic way in which its story unfolds, that impressed the hell out of me. Like all of Mann’s westerns (The Furies, Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, etc)., Bend of the River moves effortlessly from one situation to the next, turning its back on formula and convention in favor of a more natural form of storytelling (the showdown with Hendricks in Portland is followed by the escape on Captain Mello’s steamboat, which then evolves into some tense scenes on-land when McLintock faces dissention within his own ranks). As a result, we the audience are swept up by what’s happening on-screen, watching intently with no idea what’s coming next (Mann’s westerns are never predictable).
There’s a spirit of spontaneity that permeates throughout Bend of the River, which, combined with Stewart’s superb performance, makes for an exciting and altogether unique motion picture.