Somehow Bend of the River manages to be too cluttered while running too short at ninety-one minutes. The film starts great; James Stewart is a former bad man of the West who’s trying to be a good guy and become a farmer (or rancher if he can get himself some cattle). He’s guiding a wagon train to Oregon and has gotten in good with the group leader Jay C. Flippen, who has two fetching daughters too young for Stewart—Julie Adams and Lori Nelson. Stewart teases Nelson and has a nice relationship with Adams, where it seems like he’s got an interest but isn’t going to do anything about it.
Right away—the best thing Borden Chase’s script does is move things along quickly—right away River introduces Arthur Kennedy, who’s another bad man from the Middle West moved further out west to escape his past. Or at least escape the law. Kennedy’s not a repentant bad man. Stewart takes an immediate shine to him and the two pal around for a while, including a fantastic action sequence where a group of Native Americans attack the wagon train. River’s mostly apolitical, at least as far as the Native Americans are concerned. It eventually gets to being about White man greed, brought on by gold lust.
But first the wagons have to get to the settlement, which is mostly done in summary, set to Flippen giving a very religious manifest destiny speech.
Flippen’s one of the film’s bigger problems. Him, Julie Adams, and—eventually—Jack Lambert. Flippen’s character hates bad men of the West (and doesn’t know Stewart used to be one, but does know Kennedy is one) and otherwise doesn’t have much character to him. He apparently could care less about his daughters (the characterization is so slim in Chase’s script it’s unclear if the mom is still alive) other than to complain once Adams takes up with Kennedy. Adams taking up with Kennedy is all she gets to do in the film. And it’s after a multiple month gap in the present action, so she’s barely defined at the start other than the light flirtation with Stewart and then she’s Kennedy’s de facto fiancée when she comes back in. Lambert I’ll talk about later.
The film does pretty well for a while after the time jump, with the previous material foundation, but then it doesn’t really go anywhere. Stewart, Kennedy, Flippen, Adams, and charming gambler Rock Hudson (who seems shoehorned in but whatever, he’s charming) are on the run from gold crazed Howard Petrie, leading to some decent material, even if Petrie’s performance is bad. Bend has a problem with villains, because director Mann and screenwriter Chase want Kennedy to be a possible villain—he’s got to be dangerous, even if Adams adores him and Stewart thinks he’s a good guy. Lambert is the other main villain. Stewart hires Lambert and some other guys (town drunks) to help them get upriver (including the utterly wasted Harry Morgan and Royal Dano) and Lambert wants to mutiny. The mutiny stuff is terribly plotted and requires Stewart to be dumb, multiple times. Right before he turns into a (mostly offscreen) action hero.
The finale has a big action sequence but none of the skillful execution Mann showed at the beginning. The movie hinges on Stewart and Kennedy’s chemistry, but then gives Flippen a bunch to do with Stewart instead. And Flippen can’t make the poorly written role work. No one could.
I haven’t even gotten to recurring supporting cast members Stepin Fetchit and Chubby Johnson. They’re sort of a comedy duo. Johnson is a riverboat captain, Fetchit is his right hand man. Lots of mild jokes at Fetchit’s expense, usually from Johnson (who wishes they could go back to the Mississippi because he presumably wants more Black people around to treat badly). Both actors—even with Fetchit’s caricature—are better than Petrie or the town drunks, just because they at least have… I don’t know… because they’re reasonable caricatures. Lambert and company seem like they’re from a different movie, which is sort of the fault of the jump forward in the present action, but because Mann and Chase do such a shoddy job with it.
After appearing to do a decent enough job with it.
Adams having chemistry with Stewart or Kennedy (outside a couple kissy scenes) would help a lot too. Plus Hudson just stands around until the script needs him for something. He’s underutilized given his obvious potential, but overused in the script.
Mann’s direction is occasionally impressive, occasionally mediocre. Same goes for pretty much everything else—technically speaking—except Hans J. Salter’s music, which is always fantastic. Stewart’s okay until he’s got to be a hard-ass and then the script falls down on the character development. Face plants really. Kennedy is great, even though the script pretends he doesn’t have a character arc. Bend is best when it’s about Kennedy and Stewart. Once it makes time for Adams and Flippen, it loses their rakish charm. There’s so much potential when they’ve got it and the film wastes it.
Mann and Chase make it through most of the film without revealing they don’t have anything to finish it up. Once it becomes clear they don’t—which is actually long before the aforementioned disappointing finale showdown—the film becomes rather tedious, which is never a good thing with a ninety minute runtime. It’s too bad; Stewart and Kennedy deserved a better picture. Adams probably did too. Maybe even Flippen. Definitely Hudson (but for him, he more deserved not to be shoehorned into this one).
Bend of the River is a filmic shrug.
Directed by Anthony Mann; screenplay by Borden Chase, based on a novel by William Gulick; director of photography, Irving Glassberg; edited by Russell F. Schoengarth; music by Hans J. Salter; produced by Aaron Rosenberg; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring James Stewart (Glyn McLyntock), Arthur Kennedy (Emerson Cole), Julie Adams (Laura Baile), Jay C. Flippen (Jeremy Baile), Rock Hudson (Trey Wilson), Howard Petrie (Tom Hendricks), Chubby Johnson (Cap’n Mello), Stepin Fetchit (Adam), Jack Lambert (Red), Lori Nelson (Marjie Baile), Harry Morgan (Shorty), and Royal Dano (Long Tom).
THIS POST IS PART OF THE ARTHUR KENNEDY’S CONQUEST OF THE SCREEN BLOGATHON HOSTED BY VIRGINIE OF THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF CINEMA.