Having built his career around playing good guys, it seemed like James Stewart was the perfect choice when it came to playing western characters who were once bad but now trying to be good. Who could be more convincing when doing something commendably decent and one such movie where Stewart demonstrates how good he was at playing the bad guy turned good was "Bend of the River" or "Where the River Bends" as it is also known. A tale of a once trouble maker trying to start a new life who is put to the test as trouble keeps coming his way may not make for the most original of movies but it is still entertaining.
Having grown tired of running the wrong side of the law Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart - The Greatest Show on Earth) has taken the job of leading some settlers West in the hope that he can forget his past and start a new life as a farmer. Along the way he rescues Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy - Champion) from a lynching and learns that both have had a rather less than savoury past. When the trail reaches Portland they order supplies to be delivered up to the homestead to get them through the winter but when those supplies fail to arrive McLyntock heads back to Portland and discovers that a gold rush has hit town and turned everyone into money grabbers who want more money for the supplies.
The overall storyline to "Bend of the River" is not that amazing, a one time trouble maker who is trying to make a fresh start whilst also keeping his past a secret finds it coming back to haunt him and his plans for a new life. It feels like a stock storyline, something done in many other westerns just placed with in the bounds of a different location and characters. It's not bad; a pleasantly simple affair which you can pretty much guess will end up with McLyntock's dubious past being revealed as he saves the day.
But what makes "Bend of the River" so good is that director Anthony Mann approaches it in a different manner splitting it into episodes. It's a risky strategy as episodic movies have a habit of feeling disjointed but Mann manages to create a movie which manages to still feel smooth as we go from one episode such as the wagon trail showing up in Portland then jumping on a few months and their food running out where they've set up camp. And being episodic allows for each part to have a moment of drama from an attack by local Indians in one through to McLyntock, Cole and Wilson causing trouble in Portland in another.
Adding to this is that although the outcome to "Bend of the River" is semi predictable it twists and turns on its journey to get there. First you get Tom Hendricks holding on to supplies as he tries to make more money out of the travellers which leads to Hendricks and a group of men trying to track down McLyntock, Cole and Wilson when they take what is theirs. Then you suddenly get a bunch of rebel helpers lead by Shorty, played by Harry Morgan, who plan to steal the goods and sell them to gold prospectors and so it goes on as it twists, turns and almost double crosses its way till we get the big final battle, well it is a western so what else do you expect.
Whilst James Stewart gave many a great performance in various westerns this one ranks right up there as being one of his best. He's so convincing as McLyntock the once bad guy who just wants to have a fresh start, you get dimensions to his character that slight sense of fear that his secret past will spoil things yet the thrill when trouble comes his way stirring up something locked up inside him. And because Stewart can play both the nice guy and someone with a darker side it's believable.
James Stewart is by no means the only star; Arthur Kennedy gives an equally good performance as Emerson Cole the trouble maker that McLyntock saves from a hanging. There is a real sense of mischief, even delight when trouble comes his way, yet also a sense of loyalty amongst thieves as he gets on so well with McLyntock. Plus Rock Hudson lends his handsome profile as gambler Trey Wilson who finds himself caught up in the troubles. Now I like Hudson and he can deliver some really nice performances, but it almost feels that he and his character has been planted in the movie to give it some youth and good looks.
Aside from the trio of James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy and Rock Hudson the supporting cast is not short of talent either with Jay C. Flippen solidly playing the head of the trail Jeremy Baile and Julie Adams and Lori Nelson are pleasant as his young daughters Laura and Marjie. Harry Morgan shows up as one of the rebel trail hands and Stepin Fetchit as steamer hand Adam is amusing with his over the top jive talking.
What this all boils down to is that "Bend of the River" is a thoroughly entertaining movie. The overall storyline may not be brilliant but the way it is approached with an episodic styling turns it into something more, delivering drama and action in almost every section. Plus James Stewart is on top form as is Arthur Kennedy who between them deliver a couple of genuinely multi levelled characters who keep you entertained.