Film Review:The Far Country,
Anthony Mann, 1954
Gannon (John McIntire): "Take his gun. Lock him up."
[Jeff Webster (James Stewart) reaches for his gun, but Gannon outdraws him]
Gannon: "Were you thinkin' about usin' that?"
Jeff Webster: "Nooo, I was just showin' your deputy where to find it."
[Frank Newberry (Jack Elam) puts another prisoner in Jeff Webster's (James Stewart) cell in Skagway Jailhouse]
Frank Newberry: "Company for you; Doc Vallon, best doc in Skagway."
Doc Vallon: "Oh yes, because I am the only doctor in Skagway, so I am the best one."
The Far Country,
Anthony Mann, 1954
Paul Simpson compares McCabe and Mrs Miller to the Far Country - they have similarities, but Altman's film has a "better sense of time and place". (88) I think that both films are of their time. In the Far Country the image of the gold fields is romanticised. Although life is clearly harsh it is more the result of the threat of other humans than the physical conditions. Although, as in the picture, snow has to be negotiated, the camera work emphasizes the majesty of the landscape more than its impenetrability and hostility. By the time McCabe & Mrs Miller was made films were more obsessed with "realism", which impacts on the way not only the way the environment is presented but also in the way Altman grapples with the problems of showing how the miners overcame the practical difficulties thrown up by the mountains.
There are great performances from Ruth Roman as Rhonda Castle, saloon owner, Jay C Flippen as a drunken sheriff, and Jack Elam as his sloth-like deputy. Roberte Wilke is slimy hired gun Matt Madden who provokes helpless opponents before despatching them to the next life. In this way the Judge Roy Bean character (John McIntire) accumulates gold claims from hapless individuals who go from thinking themselves rich to being dead. Except for James Stewart of course who plays a worldly wise and quick witted character who outwits the Judge and smuggles cattle into Canada. The villainous Judge Roy Bean character is presented as a likeable rogue. Walter Brennan is very engaging, a far cry from his Old Man Clanton depiction in My Darling Clementine and he provides the conscience for the cynical and wily James Stewart. While James Stewart thinks of himself as ruthless his self centred streak is tempered by Brennan, who is a close friend. While they do "bicker like a married couple" (Rough Guide to Westerns, 46) to conclude as does Paul Simpson that James Stewart and Walter Brennan are an example of a gay relationship may be reading too much into it, although Anthony Mann's films do seem to contain such subtle sub texts.
The Far Country "does not make (Newman p162)
The Far Country was "greatly praised by critics and public alike for its compelling action, sensitive acting and breathtaking landscapes, shot in authentic northern ice fields". (The Western David Carter, 94) It is a very watchable film with an underlying morality which gives it a "feelgood" factor in that those engaging in fair play generally out, except of course for one or two expendable characters who bite the dust on the way and are cheerfully despatched as part of the story. In fact its morality is very much 1950s, it predates the starker and more brutal Westerns of the 1960s. Just as McCabe and Mrs Miller would emphasize the harsh impact of the weather so to it would more concerned with outcomes than the means employed in getting there.
Anthony Mann made better films which is perhaps why this one tends to get overlooked. Nevertheless it has merit and is worth watching for its cinematography and the engaging interaction which Mann, as ever, draws out from a very strong cast.
Kim Newman, Wild West Movies, 1990
Paul Simpson, The Rough Guide to Westerns, 2006
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© Chris Smallbone February 2009