Film

Unchartered Territory: The Making of an Icon in The James Stewart Western Collection

Matthew Sorrento
From Bend in the River

As he headed westward in his films, a new, darker Jimmy Stewart helped redefine a genre.


James Stewart: The Western Collection

Director: Anthony Mann
Cast: James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Shelley Winters, Maureen O'Hara, Brian Donlevy
Distributor: Universal
MPAA rating: Unrated
Subtitle: Destry Rides Again / Winchester ‘73 / Bend of the River / The Far Country / Night Passage / The Rare Breed
First date: 1950

Hitchcock's Vertigo is remembered as the major turning point in James Stewart's career, when he changed from Hollywood's down-home innocent into a psychologically complex obsessive. This performance warrants the attention, as Stewart's Scotty, who suffers from the eponymous disorder, is so fixated on a female object of desire (Kim Novak) that he commands another woman to become her.

Hitchcock, who loved to toy with audience expectations, used Stewart's lovable image to fuel a perverse central character. In the film's quieter moments, Scotty's confusion gathers sympathy, before we are duped all over again. The director's casting experiment channeled all the nervy tension for Vertigo's extensive running time.

Yet many forget that Stewart had been developing this character throughout the decade, with the help of a lesser-known filmmaker whose reputation continues to soar. In 1950, Anthony Mann cast Stewart in Winchester '73, a Western that would help to redefine the genre as it entered its golden age. 'Winchester 73 used many of the genre's familiar tropes, although it deployed Stewart as a haunted revenger out for blood more than justice.

The early moments of the film show Lin McAdam (Stewart) as rugged but with only good intentions, until he enters a saloon. At the sight of a man standing bar-side, McAdam goes to draw his pistols, as does the other. In a moment of dual castration, both men grab at air in their holsters, since the sheriff, Wyatt Earp himself, confiscates guns upon entry to town. As commonplace as the quick draw is in such a film, Mann's ironic example – with George Bailey as an impulsive killer, to boot – must have shocked viewers. When Earp asks about the feud, McAdam's response comes in a quivering breath, of equal parts rage and weariness.

The prize of this new six-film collection of Westerns made by Universal Studios is seeing Stewart redefined in films by Mann. We get the fine collaborations Winchester '73, The Far Country, and Bend of the River, even if The Naked Spur, his greatest with Mann and the director's trademark film, isn’t present. (Don't expect many extras, either; only theatrical trailers and a decent interview with Stewart about Winchester '73 are found here.)

From Winchester ˜73

While half of this set is Stewart directed by Mann, the remaining films, with the exception of Destry Rides Again, are rightfully minor entries. Even so, they show how one of American cinema's finest actors colored an American tradition.

One of America's first – and personalized – film traditions, the Western was well established early in the silent era. As film technology advanced, the sound era welcomed a grander visual scheme to best reflect influential 19th-century landscapes. The 1930s saw the tradition solidify into a commentary of patriotism, manifest destiny, triumph – in essence, America's quest to tame the unknown. Through this pursuit, trademark conceits and devices arose, soon to be epitomizes in John Ford's 1939 classic Western, Stagecoach.

The film’s diverse community, consisting of outlaws making good, prospective businessmen from back East, schoolmarms, and saloon girls, would unite against villainy and, admittedly racist depictions of natives, even if the cavalry would appear as a deus ex machine at the crisis point. As early as Ford's 1939 masterwork, the Western was grounds for a send up, served in this set's first entry, Destry Rides Again.

From Destry Rides Again

Genre purists would argue for Destry Rides Again being primarily a comedy, with good reason. The film mostly concerns the comic exploits of a frontier saloon with little attention to the landscapes beyond. (A 1932 talkie of the same name with silent star Tom Mix bares no resemblance.) Yet corruption a la the Western is present in the film's villain, Kent (Brian Donlevy), who fixes card games with the saloon's protection.

He uses the sultry Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) to help him cheat opponents; when they call his foul, he downs them within the sights of a drunken, oblivious sheriff, Wash Dimsdale (Charles Winniger). The dilemma calls for Destry (Stewart), son of a legendary sheriff (hence, the title) to help out Wash as deputy. In the same year as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stewart's very much the lovable Jimmy here, as his Destry undercuts machismo through diversion and turning the other cheek. America fell in love with the star all over again as he deployed fine comic timing.

When Frenchy first eyes Stewart's Destry, it seems as if a lifetime of passion is approaching her. Dietrich's large eyes, long vowels, and stockinged legs brim with just enough sexuality to have kept the censors at bay. It takes some effort for Destry to settle the outlaws; yet when he tries to calm Frenchy, she flails about to start a bar fight-cum-romp that leaves her drenched in drink and undaunted by a howling, packed house. Dietrich relished the role, which helped to construct the iconic saloon gal, and became fodder for Madeline Khan in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles.

Regardless of the traction between Frenchy and Destry, the union isn't feasible, as the “hooker with the heart of gold” serves ideology better than a happy ending. Justice is served, alas, on every level.

From Destry Rides Again, the set skips a full decade to take the actor into the '50s and into the hands of director Mann. By preferring on-location shooting, a philosophy that attracted Stewart to the filmmaker, Mann – like the veteran John Ford – produced a visually refined Western style for color productions, although his first entries in the genre were in black and white.

In the early '50s, Ford celebrated the classic vision of the west, until 1956's The Searchers haunted the genre and signposted the approaching revisionist Westerns of the 1960s. Yet Mann was revising the tradition by the early fifties, when he began devising “the psychological Western” with screenwriter Borden Chase (who had previously scripted what is arguably the genre’s first revisionist entry, Howard Hawks' Red River). Mann’s style uses a hero and villain, while the former is motivated by personal demons as much as classic values. It took the talent of one like Stewart to realize a “man with a past” with such verity. Stewart brought pathos in his touching trademark speeches with Capra. Yet with Mann, Stewart completed his range of emotion by channeling the kind of anger in Winchester '73's early scene, a frailty of another kind.

Stewart's loner in Winchester '73 is after the titular prize rifle: it's “one of a 1,000”, with all of its parts working to perfection. A clever device for a Western, the “one of a 1,000” serves as an ideal phallus for conquering the frontier. When the model is passed to all the contestants for inspection, Mann offers a counterpart to the famous Freudian scene in Red River when Monty Clift and John Ireland handle and admire each other's pistols. The winner of Winchester '73’s contest will at once be the town's instant hero and an object of envy.

Stewart's master marksman, Lin McAdam, wins the rifle in a close shootout, before his opponent, Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally) – the man in the bar – sneak-attacks him to steal the gun. Through McAdam's journey to reclaim the gun, Mann and Chase often rely on convention, with chases, shootouts, and a cavalry camp raid by savages ready to scalp the white man. Yet McAdam's personal mission stems deeper than retrieving his prize; it goes all the way back to familial vengeance, embodied by Dutch Henry Brown.

The gun changes hands many times, to make an intricate plot not so friendly to Hollywood simplicity. At one point, after the rifle’s been taken from a trader by a Sioux chief (a young Rock Hudson in “redface”), it falls into the hands of Steve Miller (Charles Drake), which brings Shelley Winters into the yarn as his girl. After he dies, this former saloon girl becomes a love interest for Stewart, with but a touch of the camp persona Winters would develop in the coming decades.

Dan Duryea, who became an emblematic wisecracking heavy in genre films, appears as a highwayman who kidnaps Winters for some high-energy confrontation between the two actors. Yes, like many other Westerns, masculinity is flexed while women ape laughable stereotypes. Thankfully, we can remove ourselves when watching the old Hollywood myths.

The set's next two entries – both Technicolor Stewart-Mann collaborations scripted by Chase – depict the director refining his style for the widescreen format. Both Bend of the River and The Far Country were shot on location for Mann to vitalize his woodland landscapes. The rocky crevices couching booming towns, along with the mountainous expanses, were used by Mann to reflect conflicting moods of promise and desolation.

From The Far Country

In Bend of the River, Stewart's Glyn McLyntock leads a wagontrain westward, though its members are unaware of his sordid reputation. After arriving to Portland, he finds a mogul withholding supplies from a nearby settlement. When McLyntock helps deliver the supplies for which the town rightfully paid, the rogues he's hired to help with the delivery show their true colors for their own profit.

The wandering McLyntock commits to the community in spite of his own interests to make for a rewarding turn for a troubled character, which by this time Stewart was perfecting. This entry is impeded by only one less-realistic scene shot in a studio, and Universal's decision to use a full-frame version for the DVD (the only entry not in its original aspect ratio).

The Far Country also concerns commerce and theft in the developing West. Though this time Stewart's character, Jeff Webster, with cohort Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan) steal back a heard of cattle on their way to Dawson City. Sheriff Gannon's (John MacIntire) arrival to Dawson, for revenge against Webster's theft, calls for a final showdown. Even with some stunning on-location work, ideology of the Western overwhelms suspense and action, leaving viewers craving the relentless tension of Winchester '73.

While also scripted by Chase, Night Passage was made by television director James Nielson, and feels very much like a pastiche of the Mann-Chase psychological actioner. After The Far Country, Stewart parted ways with Mann, leaving producer Aaron Rosenberg at Universal to team up the star with a new director. (Meanwhile, Mann enlisted Gary Cooper as his new lead in the celebrated Man of the West.)

Night Passage deploys Stewart (as Grant McLaine) to sneak a payroll on a train targeted by bandits. Chase's themes feel recycled when the main villain, the Utica Kid (Audie Murphy), turns out to be Grant's younger brother, a familial device served much better in Winchester '73. Night Passage also hijacks other Western iconography by gratuitously inserting Brandon DeWilde as Stewart's sidekick. The kid who called to Shane to come back signals that this one has gone overboard.

Yet, the final entry, Rare Breed, is the least satisfying – and odd duck – of the set. While this 1966 film reteamed director Andrew McLaglen with Stewart after the successful Shenandoah, the title Rare Breed doesn't suggest the dark psyche of a Stewart loner, but literally an English bull brought to America by Maureen O'Hara's Martha Price and her daughter (Juliet Mills).

Their pet bull, named “Vindicator”, soon takes center stage to make this an animal film a la Disney. Vindicator responds to a whistle and gives Stewart's character, Burnett, a headache when trying to transport him. But when the bull is in trouble, Burnett commits to saving him for the touching strains of a children's film more than a Western.

The use of the English Hereford bull – brought to the US to improve cattle, before the breed was absorbed – shows an attempt at legendary treatment. But even the eloquent beauty of Maureen O'Hara, and a canyon stampede that should have left coach passengers paralyzed, can't save this from growing maudlin.

As for Stewart, he didn't ride out of the genre on such a weak note. A few years earlier, he embodied a very different Western figure in Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Stewart would give a fond farewell in Don Siegel's elegiac Western, The Shootist, in which the Duke is terminal and Jimmy helps him through it. Universal's James Stewart Western Collection shows the making of an icon, but cannot trace his varied contributions to the genre.

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