THUNDER BAY is one of the eight movies which teamed James Stewart with director Anthony Mann. It's sort of a modern-day take on an old Western theme: rather than depicting the clash of farmers and ranchers, THUNDER BAY is about the conflict between offshore oil drillers and shrimp fishermen.
While several films in the Stewart-Mann collaboration are considered classics -- and I found the previous year's BEND OF THE RIVER wonderful fun a few weeks ago -- the results here are only moderately entertaining. The film is sort of listless and plods along without any real sense of tension, despite the ongoing battle between the drillers and fishermen. And although it was shot on location in Louisiana, the film doesn't manage to project a real sense of "place," other than on the oil rig itself, which was an interesting setting.
Another part of the movie's problem, in my eyes, is the lack of believable development in the relationship between Stewart's character and a shrimp fisherman's daughter (Joanne Dru), which is shown in fits and starts amidst the drilling and town battles. As for the other characters, the shrimp fishermen are, well, boring...and Dan Duryea as Stewart's sidekick isn't especially interesting himself.
I thought the most interesting supporting character in the movie was Jay C. Flippen as the man bankrolling the drilling operation. An interesting note is that, by my count, Flippen appeared in five of the eight Stewart-Mann films, the others being WINCHESTER '73, BEND OF THE RIVER, THE FAR COUNTRY, and STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND. (The other three films, should you be wondering, were THE NAKED SPUR, THE GLENN MILLER STORY, and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE.) Harry Morgan, who plays Flippen's accountant in this film, also appeared in five Stewart-Mann films, most notably THE GLENN MILLER STORY.
In summary, there's a good movie in here somewhere, with Stewart's determined visionary, Flippen as his loyal supporter, and the striking shots on the oil rig, but for this viewer it never all quite comes together.
THUNDER BAY was filmed in Technicolor and runs 102 or 103 minutes. It's available on VHS. It can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies.
The Turner Classic Movies site has the film's trailer.
Update: THUNDER BAY is available on DVD in the James Stewart Screen Legend Collection.
May 2014 Update: A new look at THUNDER BAY.