Arrow Video: The Far Country (1954) - Reviewed

Anthony Mann began as a genre director for television and film before finding his vocation as an auteur upon discovering the American Western picture.  Evocative and grandiose with particular emphasis on the Western landscapes as both backdrop and expression of the central protagonist’s personality, Mann quickly became a masterful practitioner of the genre spoken of the same cinematic breath as John Ford.  Across five of these Westerns, Mann would team up with one of his personal favorite collaborators, the great Jimmy Stewart, with the 1954 Alaskan set Western The Far Country among the duo’s most celebrated pairings. 

Visually epic in scope with astonishing locations of distant snow-covered mountain peaks and towering icy glaciers The Far Country introduces Jeff Webster (Jimmy Stewart), a protagonist as chilly as his wintry surroundings.  Accompanied by sidekick Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan), the duo finds their cattle snatched up and in the clutches of villainous lawman Judge Gannon (John McIntire) and his corrupt henchman.  Coupled with seductive bartender Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman) and Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet) fighting for the stoic Jeff’s romantic interests and offset by the treacherous Alaskan terrain, The Far Country functions as a traditional ensemble Western as well as a probing character study of a complicated leading antihero.

The first thing one notices immediately is the strikingly rich Technicolor cinematography by Academy Award winning industry veteran William H. Daniels, whose own mastery of the moving image landing him a three-year tenure as President of the American Society of Cinematographers.  Daniels was no stranger to Mann’s pictographic outlook on the American west having previously collaborated on The Glenn Miller Story.  Precise in framing with a keen balance between the sprawling landscapes and neatly composed intimacy with the actors, The Far Country coupled with Mann’s own command of the medium achieves a rare kind of visual perfection in its representation of the far North American west. 

The Mann western wouldn’t exist, however, without the enormous screen presence and talent of Jimmy Stewart who casts aside his comic persona in favor of a more mercurial distant gaze and touch of nihilism.  John McIntire makes for a strong villain in the role of Judge Gannon, whose cheerful disposition only amplifies his deviousness and amorality.  Special attention should be given to Ruth Roman as the sassy bad girl and Corrine Calvet as a tomboy cowgirl with a heart of gold, playing almost like an angel vs devil tug of war on Stewart’s shoulders.  Mostly though, the picture rests on Stewart and Mann’s direction, using the terrain as a means to figure out what makes a character like Jeff Webster tick.

Like most of Mann’s efforts, critical reception was lukewarm upon initial release.  The film proved to be financially successful but the film establishment didn’t immediately embrace what European critics would go on to call ‘the most ambitious of Mann’s successful westerns’.  Seen now, the scale of the picture is towering and the parallels between the face of the location and the face of it’s leading man are unmistakable to even the most inexperienced of newcomers.  There’s a certain pedigree to the film’s commitment to the characters rather than serving up a broadly appealing entertainment.  At the epicenter of The Far Country is an evocative character study of a deeply flawed antihero deftly fashioned by one of the western genre’s most iconic purveyors.

--Andrew Kotwicki