Late in life, my mother developed an unexpected and seemingly bottomless fondness for Westerns. I think that, to some extent, this was because it was a way for her to see “new” movies — new to her at any rate — that featured the stars and talents that she had grown up with. Whatever the reason, she could not get enough of the blamed things. The Big Valley, Have Gun Will Travel and (particularly to my surprise) Disney’s Zorro were her big favorite series towards the end, and when it came to movies — well, anytime a John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart western turned up in the $5 bin, I knew to just buy it and ask questions later.
This is why I have a whole bunch of John Wayne westerns in my movie library — even relative junk like The Train Robbers (which we both agreed was about the worst John Wayne western we’d ever seen).
I confess that I started t’ liking the things myself, as it went on. You can count on a vintage western to actually have a plot and be about something; to coin another of Mark Twain’s rules, you can count on it to arrive somewhere and accomplish something. You can count on it to have Good people with a capital G and Bad people with a capital B (which rhymes with T, which stands for you-know-what). You can mostly count on being able to tell the difference. You can also count on things like Great Scenery — something you don’t get much out of the movies anymore, except sometimes in the Bond franchise.
When Mom died, I pretty much couldn’t look at Westerns anymore. I have a whole season-and-a-half of Zorro that I can hardly bear to think about. In the last six months of her life, whenever I asked her what she wanted to look at, she’d say “ZORRO!” all breathless just like a little kid.
So it’s kind of a Big Step that, just about three years to the day since she died, I sat down with Bend of the River, a 1951 Jimmy Stewart western all about Building a New Life and proving yourself and Absolution from the sins of your past.
Bend of the River may actually be a better movie today than it was when it was made. If Hollywood were to make it today, the whole thing would be shot against a green screen and all the scenery and action would be CGI. In 1951, they actually went out on location with six or eight real covered wagons, with real teams pulling them and real cattle tagging along. When the villains make off with the wagons, that’s real people barreling down a real mountain at about forty miles an hour. Not all the CGI Iron Men in the world can generate the level of suspense that Bend of the River does with just horses and wagons and terrain.
If Hollywood were to make this picture today, the villains would be a lot worse than they are here. They would have a long streak of sadism to the point of depravity, and there would be a lot of blood and gore on the screen. In 1951, the villains in Bend of the River (especially including Howard Petrie, who turns in a top-notch performance as the town boss whose values change mid-steam) are just people, not much different at all from the heroes. The only thing that separates them, that makes them villains, is that they have allowed their better instincts to be subverted by greed.
Now, that’s a kind of villain that the modern cinema could use more of.
Growing up I never, ever thought of Jimmy Stewart as a western star. And yet he seems to have made a ton of them. I knew him first as the narrator of some Winnie-The-Pooh stories that I had on LP, and later as the star of Harvey and It’s a Wonderful Life and all the many pictures in which he played parts much in the same vein. I believe the first time I ever saw Stewart in a western was in Destry Rides Again… a picture that is such a kick-ass, stomp-on-the-floor classic that you never think twice about Stewart in Cowboy Drag ever again. From there we went to Winchester ’73 and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and several more… the genre offered Stewart such a wide range of types to play that I’ve no doubt he enjoyed doing them.
In Bend of the River, Stewart plays a Man with a Past who is looking to make a Better Future and do it honestly. Arthur Kennedy is on board as a man with a Nearly Identical Past who is also looking for a Better Future… but doesn’t, in the end, care much how he gets there. It has the kind of plot that provides you with a Basic Situation, and then piles on setback after setback after setback until things look So Bad for Our Heroes that you think they can’t possibly win out. A lot like life, really, except that they do win out in the end.
Maybe that’s why Mom liked Westerns after all. It’s a genre of Hope. No matter how bad things get, in a Western, struggle and hardship is always rewarded with peace in the end.
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