There are two sets of names most people tend to think of when it comes to westerns:
John Ford and John Wayne
Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone
It's those two beyond any others and with good reason. Those two pairings of a movie star and a great director have defined the western genre more than any other. Still, there is a nice, little hidden collaboration in the genre that deserves more recognition. In the 1950's James Stewart and Anthony Mann made five westerns that, besides being very good, were different than much of what had been seen before.
Bend of the River
Arguably the weakest of the bunch, Bend of the River joined The Man from Laramie as the two films that saw Arthur Kennedy play Jimmy Stewart's nemesis. He's a bit lost to film history, but Kennedy was a great character actor and was perfectly cast to play the sleazy villain next to Stewart. Putting someone who could be so unsettling next to the wholesome Stewart added layers to the conflict in the two films that the other three missed.
Bend of the River is told through a group of settlers trying to make a new start in the Oregon territory. Both Kennedy and Stewart play former outlaws who supposedly are looking to change and become good. The main theme throughout the film is the question of whether a man with a bad past can actually change.
The story is a bit rough, but what's interesting about this movie is actually the filming on Mt. Hood near Portland. Many of the scenes are actually filmed at high altitudes and without green screens obviously. So, while the script doesn't soar to the level of some of the other films, you can certainly appreciate Mann's craftsmanship in an era with limited technology.
The Far Country
In somewhat of a turn from the other films, Stewart doesn't start out looking for revenge in The Far Country. Along his drive of some cattle through Seattle into Skagway Stewart's herd is high jacked by the self-appointed lawman of the city played by John McIntire. Obviously, conflict ensues. We couldn't really have a movie if Stewart took that lying down now could we?
The Far Country leans more in the direction of Bend of the River than the other films and it's the setting of the Pacific Northwest that is most prominently displayed in the film. Also an interesting aspect is that it's really the only movie in the series where Jimmy Stewart isn't completely set out as the likable hero. He's surly and very curt and it's left up to his sidekick in the old, lovable Walter Brennan to keep the good guys separated from the bad.
It's a ploy that actually works very well for when the events that lead to the inevitable showdown at the end of the film occur it triggers a more harsh sense of revenge in Stewart's character. Certainly more so than in the other films in the series, anyway. The Far Country is probably the most rugged of the five films and it's certainly not one to be missed.
The Man from Laramie
This one was actually the last movie that Jimmy Stewart would make with Anthony Mann. It was a fitting end for the duo considering how much the film's a great study of how different the hero was portrayed in Mann's westerns versus the traditional films of the genre.
The story stays with the theme of revenge and it starts with Jimmy Stewart coming to an old west town named Coronado in search of the source for how a group of Native American Apaches became armed with new rifles. Mainly with the idea to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of the Apaches. In his search Stewart runs into trouble with the town's land-holding family and he's left try and find out whether or not the people that control the land also control the local gun trade.
It's a simple premise, but what ends up making this a stand out film are the areas of gray it assumes. Gone were the simple assumptions of bad vs. good. Each character has flaws and their own motivations, rather just being simply one thing or another. What exactly is revenge? How far will desperation take good people? These themes are repeated in the best of Stewart and Mann's collaborations.
Easily the most famous of the bunch, Winchester 73' is also the only one that was shot in black and white. It's easy to see why it's the most known, for that besides a nice story you have one of the greatest movie shootouts in film history at the end. The story again centers on Stewart's quest for revenge and how a near perfect Winchester rifle ties into his hunt for the man who killed his father.
You could argue that Winchester 73' is the most traditional western out of the five films, but you do see some of the traits that would play out in Mann's later films that dealt more with moral ambiguity. Still, this probably is the most fun of the five films and that's why it's the one that everyone keeps coming back to. Winchester 73' was the start of the themes of revenge and the hero Stewart having an unknown past. It's the movie where any viewer probably should start too if they're going to watch the series.
Now, that doesn't mean Winchester 73' is the best Anthony Mann and James Stewart western. No, I saved that one for last.
The Naked Spur
Not only is The Naked Spur the best of the James Stewart-Anthony Mann westerns, but it's simply one of the best westerns period. All of the aspects that made these movies great are all on display and at their best in this movie. Stewart isn't remotely a hero here. He simply is tracking a man for a bounty to buy back his ranch he was swindled out of. The only problem is that he needs all of the reward money to buy the ranch back and he has take on two partners to get the job done. When the idea that the money splits better among one of the men than three greed sets in.
Besides a story nearly on the level of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Naked Spur takes a very emotional and tender route. Stewart isn't the most masculine or heroic character in the movie. He's simply a regular person that's being forced to take part in disturbing behavior due to desperation. How does a good man handle the fact that another person's death could be beneficial?
Winchester 73' is the movie you start with, but The Naked Spur is definitely where you finish. It's a psychological tale that blends the rough violence, with emotion and characters with depth. It's what Anthony Mann always seemed to strive for in these five movies. It's just that The Naked Spur is the one where he really succeeds.
These are five films all worth watching and remembering. In fact I would argue that these films hold up better through the years than some those of John Ford and John Wayne. All portrayed a violent, rough-living west and not that of heroics and glamour. It wasn't just the shootout that was key to the movie, but it was the characters and their motivations. "Why?" was being asked rather than just looking to the result. These were legitimately good films and not just good westerns.
Not many other films were really breaking that ground at the time and it's something that should receive more attention. It starts by going back and watching them, as anyone who loves good movies should do.
Rest in Peace, Elizabeth Taylor
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