As with other westerns of Hollywood circa the 1950s, Bend Of The River opens with the optimistic spirit of the frontiers-people so revered in American culture but there is an edge to this oater when the lines between good men and bad are blurred.
Jimmy Stewart quickly establishes himself as a good humoured, practical man and a leader amongst the hopeful settlers he is guiding to the promised land of the frontier. We see him as a trail guide committed to leading these good people to Oregon, where he hopes to share in the dream and escape the dangerous Missouri border raider Glyn McLyntock:
Soon an element of danger is introduced into the dream of McLyntock and a nightime encounter with hostile injuns gives an early insight into the good natured guide's darker skills. As with any Western, there are two possible sources of evil and so it is that the continuing danger of Bend
Of The River comes not from the American native but from the curse of gold and the way it makes good people go bad. We begin to wonder if it might turn back the bad man gone good.
Arthur Kennedy is great as Cole, a stranger and McLyntock's contemporary on the Missouri border. A loyal friend thanks to the incredible luck of our hero passing by an isolated mountain lynch mob, he too has a dark past. Rock Hudson shines in his smaller role as the dashing gambler
Trey, who quickly trumps the heart of the rancher's daughter. Trey is a good soul but a follower, and his part is left sadly undeveloped. M.A.S.H fans, look out for a younger Harry Morgan as lowlife #2.
It is disappointing that the fantastic location cinematography is wasted without widescreen availability. The picture is clear and consistent and good for its time. Wide ranging location shots are plentiful, a rarity compared to the sound stage dependency so prevalent amongst supposed epics of the era.
The soundtrack is no different to any of its genre contemporaries. I sometimes wonder if the studio system just reused the same score for every Western churned out in the twenty years following WWII? Thank god for the advent of Ennio Morricone!!!
I am no fan of remakes, certainly not of great films but I could see how Bend Of The River might benefit from modern Hollywood's greater preparedness to explore the darkness buried beneath a redemptive soul. We rarely catch sight of McLyntock's demons but Jimmy Stewart's relaxed and practical style seem well suited to the study of a killer who will not kill; achieved to great affect later by Eastwood's Unforgiven.
It is still a great script, a cut above many films of its time and place. It is dark and a little edgy with some great cowboy humour. Thoughtful and well paced but not without its holes; how Trey and Cole manage to shoot out a man's pipe without clipping any of the bystanders is grassy knoll shooting at its magic bullet best!
Picturesque, well written and well played, Bend Of The River is short of the intense character driven Western by today's standards, yet it still stands as a powerful classic of its age. A great gift for your old dad!