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"I don't need other people. I don't need help. I can take care of me," says confirmed loner James Stewart as he drives a herd of cattle from Wyoming to Alaska to cash in on the Klondike Gold Rush boom. This being a story of the American West, however, you know Stewart will have to deal with other people and face the mythic conflict between individual and society, between free will and lawlessness. And this being a James Stewart-Anthony Mann Western, you know most of that conflict will be played out not so much between white-hatted good guys and black-hatted baddies but within the torn psyche of the central character himself.
The Far Country (1955) was the fourth Western Stewart and Mann made together, all of which were significant to the actor's later career. Stewart had been making pictures since 1935, building an image as the amiable, sometimes flustered but good-natured All-American guy, the kind of simple, down-to-earth man who could turn the head of haughty heiress Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940), for which he won a Best Actor Oscar, or turn Congress on its ear with a plea for forthright values in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). He was an immensely likable and popular leading man, whose success was further enhanced by his distinguished record in World War II. But by the end of the war, a new Stewart was ready to emerge. Capra first tapped the potential in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), now considered an uplifting holiday classic but a story that plumbs the lurking darkness behind sunny small-town American life.
Stewart revealed an unexpected intensity in his first film with Mann, Winchester '73 (1950). Shortly after, he struck a particularly sweet deal (and rather innovative for its time) with Universal in which he received a percentage of his films' profits. This allowed him greater risk and freedom and made possible the string of movies he would make with Mann, including Bend of the River (1952), Thunder Bay (1953), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), The Man from Laramie (1955), Strategic Air Command (1955) and The Far Country. The two made one other film together - The Naked Spur (1953) - an MGM picture that nevertheless fit perfectly with the Universal series. In the course of these movies, especially the Westerns, Stewart established the new range that would carry him through the decade, not only with Mann but with Alfred Hitchcock, most notably in Vertigo (1958) - that of a tougher, less open man, one who revealed levels of pain, mistrust, and near-hysteria that would have been unthinkable for the Stewart of 20 years earlier.
With Stewart, Mann was able to explore a new type of psychological Western initiated with Winchester '73 and the explosive Oedipal conflict between rancher Walter Huston and rebellious daughter Barbara Stanwyck in The Furies (1950). In The Far Country, antisocial Jeff Webster (Stewart) sets his sights on getting enough money to buy a ranch, and damn anyone who gets in his way. He encounters corrupt Sheriff Gannon (John McIntire), a man so charming and easygoing it's hard to spot him as the "bad guy," especially in contrast to Stewart's sullen, cynical "hero" (a reversal of type characteristic of Mann's stories). Although all he wants to do is take the money and run, Webster is constantly forced to confront the harsh realities of every-man-for-himself lawlessness, whether it's the need to avenge the death of his only friend (perennial sidekick Walter Brennan) or to choose between a shady tough gal of the frontier (Ruth Roman) or the homespun charms of a decent French Canadian woman (Corinne Calvet).
The stunning exteriors were filmed at Saskatchewan Glacier and Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. The cinematographer was William H. Daniels, one of Hollywood's most famous and successful directors of photography and a personal favorite of Greta Garbo's. He also shot most of the other Stewart-Mann productions.
Producer: Aaron Rosenberg
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Borden Chase
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Editing: Russell F. Schoengarth
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, Bernard Herzbrun
Original Music: Henry Mancini
Principal Cast: James Stewart (Jeff Webster), Walter Brennan (Ben Tatum), Ruth Roman (Ronda Castle), Corinne Calvet (Renee Vallon), John McIntire (Gannon), Jay C. Flippen (Rube), Harry Morgan (Ketchum), Steve Brodie (Ives), Connie Gilchrist (Hommy), Royal Dano (Luke), Jack Elam (Newberry), Kathleen Freeman (Grits).
by Rob Nixon