The Far Country (1954 USA 97mins)

Source: CAC Prod Co: Universal Prod: Aaron Rosenberg Dir: Anthony Mann Scr: Borden Chase Phot: William Daniels Ed: Russell Schoengarth Art Dir: Bernard Herzbrun, Alexander Golitzen Mus: Joseph Gershenson

Cast: James Stewart, Ruth Roman, Corinne Calvet, Walter Brennan, John McIntyre, Jay C. Flippen

Nations, like narratives, lose their origins in the myths of time and only fully realise their horizons in the mind’s eye. (1)

To study the art of the western in any depth, we must embrace both mass culture and the individual film-maker, the industry and the star. (2)

The portrayal of landscape is undeniably one of the most spectacular and inspired elements of the American western. Depicted as a kind of metaphorical mistress it is either lush, forthcoming and waiting to be tamed; or barren, unforgiving and ultimately impenetrable. Unlike other westerns which depict the landscape, and more specifically the western frontier as limitless, The Far Country shows it as finite and endangered – bounded by a ravaging civilisation on one side and the huge snow covered mountains of Canada’s far country on the other. The opening titles encapsulate this perfectly – the painted backdrop depicting two mountains left and right of screen whose feet are conjoined by a glacier, scarred by a pioneer trail. Just as we ponder on the story behind that trail, the majesty and intrigue of the scene is overwritten by James Stewart’s credit. As it is emblazoned across the screen in enormous red lettering, we are left to ask who or what are we really being called to marvel at here – the majesty of Stewart or the horizon?

By situating the drama of The Far Country upon the boundaries of the United States and the nineteenth century – ‘Seattle, 1896’ – Mann obviously has no interest in perpetuating the kind of golden pioneering myths so prevalent in early examples of the western genre. For the late 1890s was an interesting yet sad time in American history; a time when the glorious West and the notions of ‘wilderness’ and ‘heroes’ became severely tarnished. (3) Located well after the American Civil War and the west-coast gold booms, the film is contextualised within a time of great national reckoning. The country’s natural resources as well as the Native American population had been decimated, and governments of the day swiftly began to counter the great harm done by opportunistic pioneers to the Western region by introducing numerous conservationist Acts. Farmers, seeking a less labour and capital-intensive means of survival, quit their homesteads on the plains relocating to Western seaboard towns like San Francisco and Los Angeles, swelling their populations to such an extent that they were literally drained of water. Historically parenthesised in this way, The Far Country lies more within the realms of melodrama or morality play. All of this, combined with Mann’s use of James Stewart re-enforces Hollywood’s propensity to alter history. For as Jim Kitses claims in his seminal work Horizons West, just as “history was localizing and authenticating archetype, archetype was stiffening and universalizing history.”(4)

The Far Country marks Stewart’s fourth collaboration with Mann, whose casting undeniably contributes to the film’s success. An oddity amongst Hollywood leading men with his nasal drawl and gawky shy manner he was instantly likeable as the all-American male, best epitomised in The Glenn Miller Story (1954) or It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). His sweeter-than-apple-pie reputation was furthered in real-life. Ephraim Katz dubbed Stewart a “super-patriot” having attained the highest military ranking of any entertainer (Brigadier General), and also being one of the first stars to opt for a percentage share of his film’s profits upon the collapse of the Hollywood studio system. (5)

Stewart plays the weary but buoyant sharp-shooting cowpoke Jeff Webster, who arrives in Seattle on the verge of a dream – being a rich ‘free man’. He and his ‘partner’ of sorts Ben Tatem (Walter Brennan), plan to forge on ahead to the goldfields of the American-Canadian frontier where the lack of grazing land has made beef a scarce commodity. Upon his arrival in Skagway, the last American town before the Canadian border, he is caught up in the quagmire of frontier law. Driving his cattle through the township he unwittingly “busts up a hangin'” and finds himself at the mercy of the tyrannical sheriff Mr. Gannon (John McIntyre). Webster’s spell in Skagway serves to render the amoral side of his character. Secretly longing to be free of the kind of the emotional baggage that human relationships bring, Webster catapults himself into a series of Herculean tests against which his masculinity is measured.

This is perhaps best exemplified in the playing out of the Brennan-Stewart relationship, which from its outset problematises Webster’s sexuality. Despite Ben’s protestations to Webster about “gettin’ to be the chief cook, the biscuit baker and everything”, he often publicises the ‘familiar’ nature of their relationship, telling the residents of Seattle, Skagway and Dawson about their plans to buy a ranch in Utah and “settle down”. Webster’s promise to Ben is symbolised by the silver bell on his saddle – a gift bought by Ben for the door of their future house, and whose incessant jangling constantly serves to remind Webster and others (including us) of this promise. Indeed, the bell is a constant source of irritation, inciting action from characters of both sexes throughout the film. It also comes to symbolise Webster’s boldness and his aloofness. The sound of the bell acts as an aural invitation to some to capture this unattainable side, often driving Mr. Gannon and his cronies to fever pitch. As one of them mutters under his breath at Gannon, utterly frustrated, “I’m gunna get me that bell!” Even in the closing scene of the film, despite having chalked up a few macho points by avenging Ben and the townsfolk, Webster’s sexual bent continues to be problematised. Injured and alone (due to the death of possible sexual partners Ben and Ronda (Ruth Roman)), Webster finds himself in an ambiguously intimate embrace with the tom-boy Renee (Corinne Clavert) while the whole township of Dawson looks on expectantly. Until this point Renee is always dismissed as merely well-meaning, but just as the film fades to black and Webster appears to be preparing for a kiss (thereby cementing their union), he reaches for Ben’s bell and begins to fondle it longingly.

For a few seconds, that image allows Stewart to simultaneously collapse the divide between past, present and future. For all at once he represents a hero unmarked by history and the mind’s eye. He is a “a microcosm of community, where ideals, reason and humanity are always prominent but below which lie self-interest, passion and violence.”(6)

Anthony Mann’s Westerns

Devil’s Doorway, Winchester ’73, The Furies [1950]; Bend of the River, The Naked Spur [1952]; The Far Country [1954]; The Man From Laramie, The Last Frontier [1955]; The Tin Star [1957]; Man of the West [1958]; Cimarron [1960]

Endnotes

  1. Homi K. Bhabha, Nations and Narration, Routledge, London & New York, 1990, p.1
  2. Jim Kitses, Horizons West, Thames and Hudson in association with the British Film Institute, London, 1969, p.175
  3. These hallmarks of the dying West are nicely illustrated in Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), an irreverent look at the legend of Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show.
  4. Kitses, Horizons West, p.20
  5. Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia, HarperPerrenial, New York, 1994, p.1301
  6. Kitses, Horizons West, p.35

About The Author

Karli Lukas is Assistant Curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque, an independent filmmaker and works in the Media and Cinema Studies department at RMIT University, Melbourne.