Bend of the River ★★½

My fundamental issue with BEND OF THE RIVER, the second Western collaboration between director Anthony Mann and actor James Stewart, is how the depiction of good versus evil, redemption verse temptation are naive and contrived. One would expect violence from Western, including shooting and hanging, not least violence from exploitation. BEND OF RIVER belongs to the old-fashioned Hollywood Western where preaching of morality emerges from a clearly defined demarcation between right and wrong.

The settlers, led by patriarchal Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen), belong to the good side since they’re against violence, and all they need is protection during the migration and food and supplies after settling down in their new land. Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart), seemingly a pleasant, funny and skilful gunman, accompanies the settlers. But a fortuitous rescue of an ex-border raider Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from the death of hanging evokes the demon of the McLyntock's past that keeps haunting him for the rest of the journey.

In Mann’s masterful juxtaposition by camera composition, editing and narrative, Cole encapsulates the greed, egoism and violence, very much the "bad side" McLyntock once belonged to. But the film starts with McLyntock already a changed man, and his friendship with Cole, and Cole‘s ostensible kindness are never built on a solid ground. Mr. Baile believes a rotten apple could never change and hence he never trusts Cole, unaware of McLyntock past. Cole ‘steals’ the heart of the main girl, Laura Baile (Julie Adams), prompting her to stay in the depraved town instead of going back to the settlement with her father Mr. Baile. So it’s only time for the audience to see Cole return to the dark side and McLyntock fulfills his redemption by protecting the ‘good people’ and confronts Cole. When it happens, I’m hardly surprised.

The confrontation is resulted from a false premise, that is there's not enough food for two group of people, the settlers and an increasing number of miners rushing to a newly discovered gold mine nearby. When the local trader Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie) broke the deal with the settlers as previously arranged and sold the food and supplies at a much higher price to the miners instead, McLyntock has to shoot his way for the supplies, thus their survival. But Cole and some others opportunists prefer money over the lives of the settlers.

Most of the Westerns is either about greed, or revenge. In BEND OF THE RIVER, characters’ change is merely a reaction to the temptation of greed. Cole returns to his ‘evil’ side almost instantly, though he certainly conceals his true intention for a while. Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson), a professional gambler they met back then in the town and came along their journey in transporting the supplies, always has a ‘soft heart’ and unsurprisingly he turns to the ‘good side,’ even though he’s hardly a bad person before. Whilst McLyntock maybe driven by the anger of betrayal, but we never once doubt where his loyalty lies.

The 'bend of the river' aptly symbolises the bending of a man to moral conformity, I don't even recognise there's any fundamental change in the characters. The tug of war between good and evil fails to materialise in McLyntock‘s storyline and the characters never eschew the stereotypical role of hero and villain. It’s the most ‘conventional’ western by Mann I have seen so far. Although I love all the rest, BEND OF THE RIVER lacks the nuance I find in the better Mann's films, apparently a small bend of morality is insufficient.