The Far Country (1954)
Webster is Nearly Gannon Fodder
Have a nice trip! I'll hang you when you come back! - Gannon
When push comes to shove there's an ounce of good even in the most self centred, evil of people and that is one of the major elements of the Anthony Mann and James Stewart western "The Far Country". It is though only one side of a surprisingly good western, delivering all those expected elements you would expect to see in any western but adding a strong storyline surrounding the character of self centred loner named Jeff Webster.
Having driven his herd of cattle from Wyoming to Seattle and eluded arrest for murder when he takes them by steamer to Skagway, self centred loner Jeff Webster (James Stewart - The Glenn Miller Story) is not too happy when self appointed Skagway lawman Gannon (John McIntire - Apache) decides to confiscate them for a minor crime. But whilst helping Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman - Blowing Wild) travel across the border from Skagway to Dawson he decides to steal them back so he can sell them on. In Dawson and having sold his cattle to the highest bidder, Jeff decides to have a go at gold prospecting turning his back on the lawlessness which is starting to ruin the mining town of Dawson, that is until trouble lands on his doorstep.
On face value "The Far Country" initially appears to be just another western, almost immediately we meet the central figure of Jeff Webster your archetype loner who travels around the country doing what it takes to basically look after number one. And what follows could be deemed as a series of western cliche's where we get a few gunfights, a bit of romance and a storyline which twists its way along till the big climax, the big shoot out. As such you would say that "The Far Country" on face value is entertaining but generic.
But then director Anthony Mann raises the game to make "The Far Country" more of a character study, an examination of the selfish Jeff Webster and as such casting Hollywood's Mr. Nice Guy, James Stewart, as a self centred cowboy adds a further dimension. So instead of being generic "The Far Country" becomes much more interesting as we come to understand that Jeff really is quite cold hearted, willing to use others to suit his own needs. Surprisingly we don't get a back story as to why Jeff is so cold and cruel but we don't need it, we can guess at some point he's been let down and betrayed, maybe more than once and so is shielding himself from more hurt by being so self centred.
And this examination, this study of character is brilliantly worked by Mann. The scene in the Skagway bar where self-made lawman Gannon decides that he is going to have Jeff's cattle speaks volumes as Jeff smirks half in admiration at how self centred Gannon is, knowing that he would have done something similar. And this study builds up as when having reached Dawson and stolen his cattle back Jeff doesn't sell them to the neediest but callously sells them to whoever bids the most.
What makes this all rather interesting is that as already mentioned Hollywood's nice guy, James Stewart is cast as Jeff and you are sure that there will come a time when Jeff comes good and does something for others rather than just himself. But Anthony Mann toys with you, knowing that this is expected and makes you start to doubt whether there is a slice of goodness in Jeff at all. And having been cast as such a self centred character James Stewart delivers a wonderful performance, not over doing the evilness of his character but making it very clear of his single minded, self centred ethos which he lives and survives buy. It's demonstrated in a scene where Jeff shoots someone, he's not interested because his reasoning is that he shot him because he was being shot at, who he shot didn't matter.
As such James Stewart is very much the star of "The Far Country" with the likes of Ruth Roman, Corinne Calvet, Walter Brennan, Jay C. Flippen and Harry Morgan ending up over shadowed by Stewart's performances. The only star who is equal to Stewart is John McIntire who as Gannon is a great old fashioned unscrupulous character whose skuldugerrous ways force him into being a larger character than the others.
What this all boils down to is that "The Far Country" is still a very good western which manages to combine all those standard western elements but plays more as a character study. And as such director Anthony Mann crafts a wonderful movie which with James Stewart cast as a self centred loner plays with your expectations.
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