Anthony Mann and James Stewart team up for the second time in Mann’s third western, Bend of the River. This Technicolor film is brighter looking than Winchester ‘73 and The Furies, which is befitting, given that it feels less intense. Nonetheless, Mann is concerned as ever with the darker undercurrents in his characters’ psyches. No pun intended.
Stewart is Glyn McClyntock, a former Missouri raider who’s trying to turn good, starting with helping a group of settlers on their way to Oregon. Hoping to join them and become a rancher himself, he earns the affections of their leader, Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen), and his daughter, Laura (Julie Adams). Along the way, Glyn saves Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from a hanging. Cole, too, was a raider – and he doesn’t believe either of them can ever really change. When a Portland businessman tries to cheat the settlers out of their food supplies, leaving them in danger of starving over winter, Glyn and Cole’s morals will be put to the test.
Stewart and Kennedy make a great pairing, with the connection between the two characters obvious on their first meeting. The whole film centres around their duality. While Stewart plays a seemingly good man, with flashes of violence a la Lin in Winchester ‘73, Kennedy switches very well from a smile to a sneer. (Between this film, The Lusty Men, and Rancho Notorious, Kennedy had a great streak of psychological westerns in 1952.) There’s rarely much doubt about which way Glyn’s going to go, but not so with Cole, who makes some quite surprising decisions at times.
Beyond the main two, several other characters in the film deal with their ability to commit violence. Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson) is a gambler who’s quick with a gun but perhaps not ruthless enough. Laura seems a little too soft, though independent minded, but is willing to shoot when driven into a rage. Jeremy, unaware of Glyn’s past, is insistent that men don’t change their natures, but by the end of the film finds himself able to kill. The issue, perhaps, is what lies behind violent acts: personal greed, or a wish to protect others? Bend of the River stays ambiguous about this, however.
Plot, landscapes and character development are all tied together in Bend of the River. Geographical features that get mentioned early on figure largely in later events. Though night scenes take place in a studio, the film involves impressive use of location filming. A snowcapped mountain dominates many scenes, and when the characters are actually up on the mountain, the location choices clearly show how far they have come on their journey. Glyn must make an uphill climb in more ways than one, and the place where he and Cole resolve the divergence between them will indeed be where a river bends.