The Far Country—James Stewart, Walter Brennan, Ruth Roman, John McIntire, Corinne Calvet, Jay C. Flippen, Harry Morgan, Robert Wilke, Royal Dano, Jack Elam, Kathleen Freeman (1954; Dir: Anthony Mann)
In another of Mann’s stories about an alienated loner, Jeff Webster (James Stewart) has driven a herd of cattle from Wyoming to Seattle, where they are loaded on a steamboat for Skagway, Alaska Territory. It is 1898, so the Alaskan gold rush is on. Webster and his garrulous partner Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan) plan to drive the herd even farther north to Dawson, where there isn’t a lot of beef and they can get top dollar for their cattle. Then, as Ben tells anyone who will listen, they’ll buy a ranch in Utah, where they’ll spend the rest of their days.
Jeff isn’t just a loner; he’s a loner who’s good with a gun and killed two men on the drive to Seattle. When the boat’s authorities try to arrest him, he is hidden by saloon owner Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman), who’s taken a romantic interest in him. As he’s driving his cattle off the boat, Jeff inadvertently disrupts a public hanging conducted by Gannon (John McIntire), the local authority who is a law unto himself with a band of thugs (Jack Elam, Robert Wilke) to back him up. He confiscates Jeff’s cattle, and Jeff takes a job leading Ronda Castle’s wagons to Dawson, up over the Chilkoot Pass. When he get the wagons over the pass, he goes back to Skagway in the middle of the night, steals his cattle back and drives them over the pass toward Dawson.
Once in Dawson, Ben makes connections with the regular folk, including Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet), a young girl they had met in Skagway. With the gold has come a rougher element and some crime, and the process is sped up by Ronda’s Dawson Castle saloon. Jeff sells his cattle at a high price and buys a local gold claim. Meanwhile, the Mounties haven’t yet figured out how to extend their authority over the unruly area. Jeff finds himself with several conflicts: two potential romantic interests; the salt-of-the-earth regular residents and claimholders against the glitzier newcomers out for a fast buck; and regular law and order against Gannon’s variety of law.
Yes, Gannon has shown up in Dawson, with an even larger gang of thugs than he had in Skagway. Claim-jumping becomes a regular feature of life in Dawson, as do murder and robbery. Jeff resists taking a hand until he’s robbed and left for dead, and Ben is killed. Renee nurses him back to health, and although his arm is still in a sling, he has a final shootout with Gannon and his minions.
This is one of the best of the “northerns” set during the Alaska gold rush (see also North to Alaska, White Fang and The Spoilers), and like many of them, it features a character based on the real-life conman Soapy Smith, who took over Skagway for a time. This has a larger cast than some of Anthony Mann’s westerns, and they’re quite good. Both Ruth Roman and Corinne Calvet are believable romantic interests, so that the final choice is not a foregone conclusion. John McIntire is excellent as Gannon, the Soapy Smith character. Walter Brennan’s talkative Ben makes personal connections much more easily than Jeff, but he tends to let information slip when he shouldn’t. Jay C. Flippen and Kathleen Freeman are both part of the good Dawson crowd. Stewart is edgy as he usually was in a Mann western; he wears his usual hat and rides Pie, the horse he rode through seventeen westerns. One key plot point relates to a bell Jeff hangs from his saddle horn.
James Stewart demonstrates that Randolph Scott wasn’t the only star of western movies who could have a romantic triangle going, first with saloon owner Ruth Roman and then with mining lass Corinne Calvet.
The script was by Borden Chase, who provided the scripts for previous Mann films Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River, as well as for Red River and Night Passage. The film was shot on location at Jasper in Alberta. Cinematography was by William H. Daniels. The DVD version in general circulation (2010) is unfortunately only a full-screen, pan-and-scan version.