' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Bend of the River (1952)

Friday, March 12, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: Bend of the River (1952)

A wagon train from Missouri has boarded a steamship to take it up the Columbia River into the Oregon wilderness to start a new settlement, “where the earth is rich”, as the group’s leader Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen) says to its scout Glyn McLyntock (Jimmy Stewart), to build homes and a church and a school with the “trees that nature has given us”, to put down seedlings and “bring fruit to the world such as the eyes of man has never seen.” Director Anthony Mann lays accompanying images over Jeremy’s words, making it seem as if they have come true, nothing less than an American west Eden. It is telling, though, that the steamship captain (Chubby Johnson) has a recurring bit about wishing he’d never left the Mississippi River, suggesting that the land of milk and honey ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. And that, alas, is what Jeremy and Glyn and this wagon train find too. “Bend of the River”, after all, was a revisionist western, the second of five Mann made with Stewart. And though there are moments when its deconstructionist mindset exposes yawning blind spots, thoughtlessly utilizing Native Americans as compulsory, faceless villains, not to mention utterly egregious scenes with Stepin Fetchit, commenting not on the movie’s 1866 setting but its 1952 release date, it still succeeds by virtue of Stewart’s leading performance, letting rage mingle with righteousness, and Mann’s incisive argument for economic inclusivity innately tied to the story.

As the movie begins, Glyn saves Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from being hung, bringing him into the wagon train as it continues to Oregon. The latter has a dark past, as does the former, the details of each one gradually doled out and tied to the ultimate question of whether such men can truly be redeemed. Based on their billing you can probably figure out who is redeemed and who is not but that makes it no less compelling to watch. Indeed, while Jeremy’s daughter, Laura (Julie Adams), not so much underwritten as not really written at all, briefly teases the potential for love triangle, it’s notable how Glyn almost immediately eschews such a plot possibility, pointedly telling Cole up front he and Laura are not an item. And though Cole and Laura end up together, at least for awhile, “Bend of the River” proves a prototypical bromance, the two men circling one another cautiously, and waiting for the other shoe to drop even as they simultaneously get along because they intrinsically understand the other, a rich, complicated cinematic relationship.

Upon arriving in Portland, the wagon train purchases supplies from a merchant, Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie), to be sent upriver to their settlement at a later date. When winter beckons, however, and the supplies have not arrived, Glyn and Jeremy trek back to Portland where they discover the city has gone mad from a gold rush, brothels and casinos and saloons sprung up virtually overnight, the price of their supplies having been astronomically inflated by the previously jovial Hendricks. He was nice, Jeremy remarks, until he found gold, though Petrie evinces this turn too, his garrulous air in the first scenes, like a man as a bear hug, giving way to curt phrasing and hungry eyes, a reverse Ebenezer Scrooge. When Glyn discovers this change, he packs the supplies on the steamship anyway and sets off with them, aided by Cole, and leading to not only Hendricks giving chase but those working for Glyn to consider taking the supplies for themselves. Eventually, Cole will consider taking those supplies too. 

The back half of “Bend of the River” is a violent manifestation of greed, the paint by numbers musical score working as an unintentional ironic counterpoint to these scenes, still sweeping them along even as the men turn on one another, The Treasure of Sierra Madre in the mountains. And though Glyn sticking by his word to the wagon train allows for his redemption, the decisions he is forced to make muddle up that picture, breaking the law he would otherwise follow and threatening the men in his employ. By the end, when he is left for dead only to come crawling back, like the monster who cannot be killed, his gunshots heard in the distance as he kills each man who comes to find him, the character and Stewart’s venomous turn suggest that no prosperity can be achieved in America without flouting the very ideals it would otherwise claim to uphold. 

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