Sunday, December 01, 2019

Tonight's Movie: The Far Country (1954) - An Arrow Academy Blu-ray Review

THE FAR COUNTRY (1954), one of my favorite Westerns directed by Anthony Mann, is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy.

This impressive two-disc set includes the film shown in two different aspect ratios, 1.85 and 2.00. I watched the very nice-looking 1.85 version; that disc also includes a number of extras detailed at the end of this review.

I first saw THE FAR COUNTRY at UCLA as part of their 2014 Mann series. For me THE FAR COUNTRY ranks after BEND OF THE RIVER (1952) and WINCHESTER '73 (1950) as my favorite Anthony Mann-James Stewart Western.

I feel THE FAR COUNTRY occupies a sort of middle ground between those more optimistic films and Mann and Stewart's much heavier THE NAKED SPUR (1953) and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955). To be sure, Stewart's character goes to dark places in all five films and THE FAR COUNTRY gets pretty grim, with a high body count, but in the end Stewart's FAR COUNTRY character puts his "every man for himself" philosophy behind in order to end lawlessness and start building a community.

Stewart plays Jeff Gannon, who's working with Ben (Walter Brennan) and Rube (Jay C. Flippen) to herd cattle from Skagway to Dawson, where beef is worth a small fortune.

In Skagway Jeff runs into trouble with the crooked Judge Gannon (John McIntire), who's a law unto himself and claims the herd as his own. Few men are willing to go up against the judge, but Jeff manages to "steal" back his rightful herd and head them toward Dawson.

Along for the trek is Ronda (Ruth Roman) a Skagway saloon owner planning to open a new business in Dawson.

Before long Gannon also arrives in Dawson, where he and Madden (Robert J. Wilke) run roughshod over the local miners, stealing their claims and killing anyone who stands in their way. The intimidated townspeople must decide whether to turn over their claims to Gannon without a fight or stand up for themselves and their community.

I'd forgotten just how many characters are killed in the film's 97 minutes; it's in some ways a sad film due to this, but it's still one I really enjoy, building to a satisfying conclusion.

Brennan is particularly good as the coffee-loving Ben, who's able to bring out Jeff's kinder side. While Jeff mostly claims to be looking out for himself, at times Ben and Renee (Corinne Calvet) are able to get Jeff, through affection or shame, to do the right thing.

Calvet, as the more "wholesome" love interest vying with "bad girl" Ronda for Jeff's affections, can be a bit tiresome with her repetitive "I'm not a child" type lines, but in the end her goodness wins over both Jeff and the viewer. Roman brings an extra bit of energy to all her scenes as a woman with uncertain motivations and alliances; like Jeff, she's looking out for Number One.

Although, as pointed out in one of the featurettes, some of the film was clearly done on soundstages, the Canadian locations are nonetheless impressive. When watching this film I feel as though I can sense just how cold it was as the characters huddle around the coffee pot over the campfire. I really appreciate the film's unique sense of place in the snowy mountains, as filmed by William H. Daniels.

I also particularly enjoy the film for its cast, including Mann regulars such as McIntire, Flippen, and Harry Morgan. The great character actor names in the cast go on and on: Steve Brodie, Chubby Johnson, Jack Elam, John Doucette, Royal Dano, Kathleen Freeman, Chuck Roberson, Connie Gilchrist, and more.

It's interesting that Borden Chase wrote (or cowrote) my top three favorite Mann-Stewart Westerns, but he didn't work on THE NAKED SPUR or THE MAN FROM LARAMIE. Chase's work also included RED RIVER (1948).

Disc One extras include a commentary track by Adrian Martin; a featurette with critical commentary by Kim Newman; and a very good 34-minute documentary, AMERICAN FRONTIERS, ANTHONY MANN AT UNIVERSAL (2019) which includes interviews with several historians including Rob Word, Michael Schlesinger, and most extensively, Alan K. Rode. The trailer and an image gallery are also included.

The final edition of this Blu-ray will include a limited edition booklet with an essay by Philip Kemp. The booklet and reversible case cover art were not included in the advance promotional copy of the set which I reviewed.

THE FAR COUNTRY joins a number of excellent classic film releases from Arrow this year. Recommended.

Thanks to Arrow Academy for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


Blogger barrylane said...

I like The Far Country too, but with serious reservations. Corinne Calvet, a fine performer,, was obviously instructed to play her part in this silly way. Wrong and bad. The death of Ronda, Ruth Roma's part is contrived. She is the girl; the heroine, and not to be thrown away. Ben is an imbecile. I would kill him before we got to Skagway. What a bore. Make him like Groot, and he becomes a winner. So, the first half, and perhaps more, fine compelling entertainment, but from the mountain crossing, a sharp and continual decline. As for Stewart, always great.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Walter S. said...

Laura, another fine review of a Classic Western. For me, I really think that the Mann/Stewart Westerns shouldn't be viewed as competitive with each other. All five movies hit the bullseye with me. It is a clear matter of personal taste of whether I like best one over the others.

Yes, Borden Chase wrote the screenplay for THE FAR COUNTRY, but I think that novelist Ernest Haycox should be recognized for his very good novel ALDER GULCH(1941), which was serialized in COLLIERS MAGAZINE from November 29, 1941 to January 31, 1942. The similarities in story are there, but the setting in ALDER GULCH is 1863 Idaho Territory, which became Montana Territory in 1864. We have Jeff Pierce and Diana Castle instead of Jeff Webster and Rhonda Castle. The crooked lawman is Historical Sheriff Henry Plummer, instead of Judge Gannon. In my opinion, Ernest Haycox should have at least received a story credit.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Barrylane, although the things you mention don't bother me as much as you, I can't really argue with your take either. Ben didn't bother me, but I do think Roman and Calvet could have each been a bit better used. Enjoyed your thoughts.

Walter, thank you! That is great information on Haycox which I appreciate you sharing! Very interesting info indeed.

Best wishes,

9:43 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

For whatever it's worth, I just ran The Far Country again, and was a lot less annoyed, not because the Brennan, Calvet characterizations improved, but because everything else is just so good. So, I think you have it right, Laura.

7:42 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Barrylane, I'm catching up on comments after a hectic run-up to Christmas. Wanted you to know I was very interested in your reassessment. It's interesting how sometimes a film can hit us differently at different times. There is a great deal in this that's good, isn't there?

Thanks much --

Best wishes,

7:25 PM  

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