Starring: James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Rock Hudson, Julie Adams
Director: Anthony Mann
Mood: If you haven’t watched a truly good movie in way too long and you need a guaranteed hit starring a reliable everyman Western lead.
If you want a great Western that thoroughly satisfies all of the major categories – action, adventure, storytelling, character arcs – you can always count on Jimmy Stewart. That’s why I chose to watch Bend of the River, and it did not disappoint.
I have this habit of buying Westerns that satisfy a theme, like actors you wouldn’t have guessed did a Western, Westerns with BIPOC or strong female leads, or Westerns from one of the many subgenres that I’ve been working my way through for years out of eager curiosity.
While I enjoy trying out a wide range of Westerns, I spend a lot of time sitting through movies that aren’t quite awful enough to make my “Hated It” collection, but they’re not great either.
You watch four or five ‘meh’ Westerns in a row and next thing you know, you aren’t looking forward to watching Westerns anymore! That’s exactly where I was at last night, and I knew I needed a Jimmy Stewart palate cleanser.
Bend of the River is all things classic Western. You get lots of wagon travel, tons of shooting, a few punch-outs and stabbings, romance, betrayal… it’s everything we love about this genre, plus a few unique twists.
Bend of the River takes place in 1866, with Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart) guiding a wagon train of settlers bound for Oregon.
While out scouting the trail, McLyntock prevents the lynching of Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) for stealing a horse. The two men figure out that the other has a darker past, but choose not to talk about it.
Cole joins the wagon train for a short time, and saves McLyntock from a Shoshone attack in which the attractive young Laura Baile (Julie Adams) takes an arrow to the shoulder. The train stops in Portland to purchase supplies and get medical help for Laura.
It seems like all is said and done when McLyntock rides out with the train, but the supplies never arrive – and neither does Laura. McLyntock has to call upon skills he’s hidden from this righteous group of settlers, if they have any chance of survival.
I feel like every Jimmy Stewart Western that I review becomes an ode to his skills. But that’s because every Stewart movie review SHOULD be an ode to this man!
Stewart had a unique brand of masculinity that wasn’t what you’d expect in a ‘50s Western lead. He wasn’t overly physical, stoic, or cocky. He could be handy with a gun and his fists, but he didn’t ooze machismo or do wisecracks.
Instead, he was the epitome of the Everyman archetype: relatable, dependable, down-to-earth, and treated everyone as equal. And it worked so perfectly for his roles, like in Bend of the River as the reformed outlaw Glyn McLyntock. Stewart gives you this straightforward guy who doesn’t raise a fuss when Laura picks another man, gives everyone a chance, and fights for those who need help.
But Stewart also had such a seriousness about him, evoking a character’s fascinating past that we don’t talk about but REALLY want to.
Opposite Stewart is Arthur Kennedy, and he handily holds his own. Kennedy gives you a little more charm, and a little less of a moral compass. It’s subtle for most of the movie, only revealing sly glimpses of Cole’s delight in fighting and shooting but otherwise acting just like McLyntock.
Their dynamic effectively delivers a strong theme of humans all having good and bad in us, and having to choose which side we listen to.
Rock Hudson is among the top-billed actors in Bend of the River, but you could remove his character and still have the same great story. And while Julie Adams gets a marginally stronger and certainly more natural-looking female lead than the usual ‘50s femme fatale, she’s mostly arm candy.
- Fun Fact #1: Apparently Hudson got way more applause at the premiere of Bend of the River (NO idea why), so Stewart vowed to never work with him or even speak to him again – and he never did.
There’s also a host of super memorable minor characters and good acting all around, from the odd couple of Cap’n Mello and Adam (Stepin Fetchit in a cringey stereotyped role) to the group of not-quite-evil-but-definitely-not-good guys hired to carry the supplies (including Harry Morgan and Jack Lambert).
Most everybody comes across as natural in their roles, like they just ARE Western.
What makes Bend of the River different from other Westerns of its time is that it’s not so predictable, because there’s no clear bad guy or posse or ‘cowboys vs. Indians’ setup.
For more than half the movie, the only threat is the brief scene with the Shoshone. McLyntock even comments that the wagon train encountered no attacks on the rest of their journey by pure luck.
You don’t know where the big challenge will come from to test McLyntock. You certainly don’t expect Laura to happily pair off with someone else early on, and McLyntock to be fine with it. The usual formula just isn’t there, which makes it feel like a more authentic story – albeit a little slower in the first half.
When the action hits it’s hard and fast, and also quite realistic for the ‘50s. The bigger fights are messy, with everybody missing most of their shots and wagons nearly tipping over. The final showdown takes place in a river instead of the usual town or box canyon scenery, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
The whole thing feels epic, but the physically and mentally exhausting kind of epic that real humans would have to deal with instead of the glamourous Hollywood kind where you can still gallop off all peppy afterward.
Bend of the River boasts great writing, great acting, AND it’s the second film in the great Western partnership of director Anthony Mann and James Stewart (the first being a favourite of mine, Winchester ‘73).
- Fun Fact #2: James Stewart made eight films with Anthony Mann (five of which were Westerns), and also appeared in eight films with costar Harry Morgan (five of which were – you guessed it – Westerns).
It’s honestly shocking to me that Bend of the River got poor reviews when it first came out. At least now it holds a well-deserved 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I will absolutely watch it again.