' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Far Country (1954)

Friday, October 26, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Far Country (1954)

Anthony Mann’s “The Far Country” is a workout of familiar western themes, with the notion of the individual pitted against the good of the community and the ideas of settling down and remaining rough glimpsed on the periphery. That it gets by is testament to both the stunning location work and nuanced psychology, even emitting palpable notions of masculine love, and topped off by a fine Jimmy Stewart performance. If he played against type so frequently it might be better to simply say he had no type, here the way Stewart, ruthless yet amused, has his cattle rustler, gunslinger Jeff Webster move through a tough frontier world is to believe that he has already charted every possible outcome. It’s as if to get caught up in the innumerable squabbles he comes across is to surrender authorship of your own fate, which he will not do, epitomized in an incredible mid-movie close-up where he is begged to take the marshal’s star of a small frontier town. Stewart does not smile so much as smirk, and then unleash a slight chuckle as scoff. And when he parries their request with a “Not interested”, it’s the shrugging way he says it that makes you believe he’s been turning down such requests all his life. And when the man who takes the job can’t live up to it, it’s a rare moment when you can almost see why such men might be right.

As “The Far Country” opens, Jeff and his coffee-addled partner Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan) have driven a herd of cattle from Wyoming to Seattle, planning to then catch a boat up north to the Yukon Territory where the promise of gold awaits. It’s emblematic of the film’s setting – that is, 1896 – where America has stretched so far that it has more or less stretched itself thin, forcing cowboys and other assorted adventurers to look for points elsewhere to grasp the formerly American Dream, like the lawless Yukon. That lawlessness is key. If once this was the wild west, it has been tamed, which we see in the opening scene where lawmen come for Jeff who has killed a couple trailhands for deigning to turn back. That’s it; they want to turn back to Wyoming and he shoots them. That’s hardly the sort of main character You Care About, but that’s sort of the point.

Jeff is no better, really, than Judge Gannon (John McEntire), sort of the Judge Roy Bean of Skagway, located in the Alaskan panhandle, a little ways down the trail on which Jeff and Ben and their herd inadvertently interfere with Judge Gannon’s hanging. This interference nearly leads to Judge Gannon hanging Jeff before backing off at his barroom court, where he liberally pours libations, and continues to do so throughout, drinking so much whiskey you assume he’s He’s also not so different from Jeff, which is not an observation the screenplay forces him to say loud, rather letting it rise in their behavior. If Jeff dispensed his own justice by blasting those two trailhands into oblivion, Judge Gammon does it by confiscating Jeff’s cattle, which is maybe why, like in other spots, Jeff gets that little grin, like this is a game being contested apart from ethics and morals.

If you need a character to care about, well, that becomes Ben, functioning as Jeff’s conscious, forcing him to turn and around and go save some folks injured in an avalanche. Their relationship goes even beyond that, however, not overly, though still noticeably, especially given the way that Ben constantly interjects about his and Jeff’s plan to retire to some ranch in Utah with a bell on the front door. Maybe that’s just the old west credo of pals on the trail, but Mann slyly plays it off the two women that enter the picture, both of whom who clearly have eyes for Jeff, and toward whom Stewart simply refuses to convey as much affection as he does for Ben. Things go wrong for Ben, alas, but the concluding shot, an unintentional, or perhaps not, twisting of the every time a bell rings bit from another Stewart movie, suggests I Love You, Man more than any modern day bromance would ever dare.

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