"Bend of the River" (Anthony Mann, 1952) "Any man can make a mistake" Take Glyn McLintock (James Stewart). He's scouting a trail for a wagon-train of farmers, led by Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen) in the Northwest territories when he comes across an impromptu necktie-party and Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) is the guest of dishonor. Maybe it's his sense of honor. Maybe it's the itch he feels in his neck. But he rescues Cole and finds that they're two peas in a morally questionable pod: both men have reputations loud enough to follow them through the virginal Oregon territory. They think the same, completing each other's sentences, they fight the same, pulling each other's fat out of the fire many a time—the two of 'em together is deadly. Put 'em at odds—over a girl or a deal—and the results could be equally deadly if the modicum of good shared between the two didn't delay the inevitable.
They're both likable bad men, looking for a good future away from civilization. It just depends how close their pasts follow them. Baile has his own ideas on the subject: "A man like that don't change." McLintock hopes he's wrong, but just in case, he's going to keep that kerchief around his neck tied tight. Daughters Laurie (Julie Adams) and Marjie (Lori Nelson) think that the right woman can change a man. Gambler Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson, very good in an early role) who's "fast on the draw, but soft" and "not the marrying kind," thinks that's long odds. But the time will come when the two men so evenly matched are going to have to choose sides. And when they do...
You see a lot of Howard Hawks' "Red River" in "Bend of the River." That's because they share the same script and story-writer, Borden Chase. A lot of incidents and lines of dialogue reflect each other. Hawks joked his way out of "Red River's" volatile climax, but there's no chance of that here, even though both movies do share a heroine who gets hit, literally, with an arrow when they meet the man they're going to fall in love with. And where John Wayne found underplaying the line "One day you'll look back and I'll be there" most effective, James Stewart seethes it through his teeth. The Mann-Stewart Westerns had complicated psychologies with Stewart exploring his dark side in each of them (although not so much in their other collaborations in the '50's, "The Glenn Miller Story" and "Strategic Air Command"). "Bend of the River" is one of the best of them, with a vengeful Stewart picking off his enemies one by one, without a mind to the morality of an ambush.*
It is that razor's edge of sanity and judgement that makes "Bend of the River" interesting. At any time, one can imagine Stewart losing the veneer of good-guy and killing in hot blood or cold. It is that sense of real danger that Mann and Chase and Stewart bring to the conflict of being in a tight spot with no way out that makes "Bend of the River" one of the better Westerns ever made, and one that feels timeless in a genre considered past its time.
* Oh, now here's a scary thought—the movie could play as a Westernized "Rambo"