The Far Country (1955) dir. Anthony Mann
Starring: James Stewart, Ruth Roman, Walter Brennon, Corine Calvet
Jimmy Stewart wasn’t known for his westerns, but in fact he made many in the genre, including five with director Anthony Mann. “The Far Country” was his last collaboration with Mann, a prototypical genre film, fulfilling all expectations and even giving us a bit more than we’d usually get.
Jimmy plays Jeff Webster, an opportunist who, with his partner Ben Tatum (Walter Brennon), travel north to capitalize on the Klondike boom. Their prized possession is a herd of cattle which they hope to sell in Dawson City to fund their dream ranch in Utah. Plans are halted in Skagway when the duo run into the self-made lawman Gannon who rules his town like a tyrannical despot. But in Jeff Webster, Gannon has met his match.
Gannon is jailed on a trumped-up charge, but manages to get released and save his herd. On the way to Dawson City a quid pro quo of actions escalate into an all out war between the citizens of Dawson City and Gannon’s group of evil strongmen. Gannon, who prefers to protect his own back, is conflicted to go against his personal scruples and fight someone else's battle.
"The Far Country" is one of the best examples of the Western genre. Jeff is the typical genre protagonist, a semi-nomadic loner/drifter with his own personal code of honour. In fact, he’s wanted for murder, and when he’s confronted about it, he says, “I shot him, because he shot at me”. Webster prefers the company of himself and his best pal Tatum and refuses help or to be helped, “I don't need other people. I don't need help. I can take care of me.”
Writer Borden Chase is not subtle with Jeff's traits, but it’s important to be clear about who his character is – after all its Jimmy Stewart playing against type (the exact opposite of George Bailey). The internal conundrum Jeff is faced with at the end resonates deeper when he decides to altruistically stand up for the innocents.
Jimmy Stewart performs admirably as the thick skinned but honourable bullhead. His best scene is when Marshal Rube Morris confronts Gannon and his thugs in Dawson City. Rube is clearly in over his head facing off against the tough guys – Webster recognizes this and Jimmy Stewart’s face registers all the words necessary to describe his character's internal conflict. I generally prefer the aged Stewart, with his graying hair and crow's feet, which makes for seems to make for a more complex character. "The Far Country" is one of his best mid-career performances.
The film also charts a poignant subplot about his relationship with his best friend Ben. They are like father and son, but Webster is the leader and Ben has followed him around on his various schemes and adventures without complaint. And so, when Ben confesses to wanting to move on without Webster it’s a strong unspoken moment.
This is the strength of "The Far Country”. The awesome scenery (shot in Jasper Park in Alberta) commands most of the praise, but there’s a lot going on between the lines and a surprising amount of subtle subtext in a genre which is typically on the nose and action-oriented. Enjoy.
“The Far Country” is available on DVD in The James Stewart Westerns Collection available from Universal Studios Home Entertainment