Far Country (The) (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (8th December 2019).
The Film

The Far Country (Anthony Mann, 1954)

Synopsis:
1896. Driving cattle to the prospector town of Dawson in the Yukon – a town rich in gold but not in terms of food – Jeff Webster (James Stewart) is met in Seattle by his business partner, Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan). Having set out from Wyoming with four drovers, Jeff arrives in Seattle with only two – and these two have been disarmed. Jeff reveals to Ben that during the drive from Wyoming to Seattle, the four drovers plotted to steal Jeff and Ben’s cattle; Jeff killed two of the drovers and disarmed the remaining pair.

Jeff and Ben plan to take the cattle aboard a paddle steamer which will give them passage to Skagway, and from Skagway they intend to travel through the mountain pass into Dawson. Also on board the ship is an acquaintance of Jeff and Ben’s, a drunken prospector named Rube (Jay C Flippen). However, as the paddle steamer leaves Seattle, Jeff is accused of murdering the two drovers. He flees and winds up in the cabin of Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman), who hides Jeff under her bedsheets when the crew of the steamer enter her room during the search. Eventually, the crew cease looking for Jeff, believing him to have jumped from the ship.

When the steamer reaches Skagway, Ben and Jeff remove the cattle from the hold. Jeff struggles to regain control of the cattle as they race through the town’s streets, disrupting a hanging organised by the town’s judge, Gannon (John McIntire). Gannon is angered that Jeff ‘busted up my hanging’ and has Jeff jailed for this and for the alleged murders of the two drovers.

Jeff is thrown in a cell with a French doctor who is visited by his idealistic daughter Renee (Corinne Calvet), who takes a shine to Jeff. When Jeff is hauled to the saloon, where Gannon holds court, Renee follows. At a poker table, Gannon tries Jeff for his alleged crimes. Gannon acquits Jeff of the murder in Seattle but declares him guilty of disturbing the peace in Skagway; the forfeit, Gannon declares, is Jeff and Ben’s cattle, which must be given to Gannon immediately.

Afterwards, Ben suggests he and Jeff carry on to the Yukon and stake out a claim, becoming prospectors. However, the pair discover that they cannot cross the border without proving that they have 100lbs of food; this is a local law drawn up by Gannon, who of course is the one who profits the most from the food sales in the town. They are approached by Ronda Castle, who asks Jeff to drive her supplies up to the town of Dawson; in return, she will pay Jeff and Ben 100lbs of food each, enabling them to cross the border. Renee joins them, hoping to find gold in Dawson: she wants to save up enough money to pay for her father to study abroad and become a stomach specialist. Jeff agrees, but after the group have set up camp for the night on the other side of the border, Jeff rides back to Skagway and steals the cattle Gannon took from him and Ben. Gannon and a posse pursue Jeff but lose him at the border.

The group reach a mountain pass. Jeff proposes they go through the valley, which will take them six days longer to reach Dawson. Jeff is concerned that with the spring thaw, the mountain pass could be a deadly route; however, Castle and her men believe Jeff is proposing taking the train of supplies through the valley so that his cattle will be able to feed on the journey, and they split off from Jeff, Ben and Renee. Jeff and his group head through the valley, whilst Castle and her men attempt to reach Dawson through the mountain pass. However, not long into their journey the snow begins to shift on the mountain, causing an avalanche that swallows up Castle’s train of supplies. Jeff initially refuses to help but eventually accedes to Renee’s demand that he double back and assist Castle and the others.

As the supply train reaches Two Mile Pass, a bottleneck which seems to be the only way in and out of Dawson, they see a gang of raiders attack and kill two prospectors. Before the raiders can flee, Jeff shoots one of them; he approaches the body and recognises the outlaw as being a drover that Castle fired back in Skagway.

Arriving in Dawson, they discover the town less than pleased to see Ronda Castle, whose plan is to establish a saloon to rival the one the town already has, which is run by Hominy (Connie Gilchrist). With her train of supplies, Castle plans to undercut Hominy’s business; where Hominy has been selling bear meat, Castle pays Jeff for his cattle so that she can serve beef, which of course is much more appealing to the prospectors living in and around Dawson. Castle is of course in league with Gannon, who arrives in Dawson shortly afterwards, much to the chagrin of the locals, and begins to use strong-arm techniques to take the prospectors’ claims.

Jeff and Ben try prospecting for a while, but Jeff soon decides to leave Dawson. Realising that leaving the town via Two Mile Pass is deadly owing to Gannon’s thugs, Jeff learns from a Native American another way out of Dawson – via a river. He builds a raft and persuades Ben to come with him. However, as they are about to leave, Gannon’s hoodlums ride over and shoot Ben in the back, killing him. In the gunfight, Jeff is badly injured, his gun hand crippled. However, he survives and makes it back to Dawson, determined to enact revenge on Gannon and his hired guns.

Critique: The five Westerns on which director Anthony Mann collaborated with star James Stewart during the early- to mid-1950s helped to redefine the genre and give the American Western added psychological depth and complexity – leading in to the other ‘adult’ Westerns of that decade (such as John Ford’s The Searchers in 1956 and Andre de Toth’s Day of the Outlaw in 1958). These ‘outdoors’ Westerns connected the landscape with psychological and often familial trauma. The Mann-Stewart Westerns amalgamated the outer form of the Western with the inner form of the post-war films noir with which Mann had previously been associated (thanks to pictures such as Railroaded! In 1947 and Raw Deal in 1948); they reimagined the Western (anti-)hero as a troubled individual, often haunted by previous traumas only hinted at, in a way that probably spoke volumes to audiences whose lives had been impacted by the war. As James Chapman has asserted, these films ‘recast the star persona of James Stewart into a complex, flawed anti-hero, disillusioned with society and often seeking vengeance’ (Chapman, 2004: np).

The Mann-Stewart Westerns were arguably defined by the input of writer Borden Chase, a veteran scriptwriter who wrote three of the pictures (including the first and second – Winchester ’73 in 1950, Bend of the River in 1952 – and the fourth, The Far Country). Chase’s earlier scripts for Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) and Henry Levin’s The Man from Colorado (1949) had hinted at some of the themes, of trauma and troubled mentor-mentee relationships, that would be pursued in the Mann-Stewart Westerns. Other writers would script the third and fifth Mann-Stewart Westerns (Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom wrote 1953’s The Naked Spur, and Philip Yordan and Frank Burt wrote 1955’s The Man from Laramie), but they followed a path that Chase had defined in Winchester ’73. Mann and Stewart would end this fruitful period of collaboration after a disagreement over the quality of a script Borden Chase had written, Night Passage, which was to have been the sixth of the Mann-Stewart Westerns; Mann reputedly felt that Chase’s script was terrible. Stewart would continue to pursue the project, and Night Passage was ultimately directed by James Neilson and released in 1957. Meanwhile, Mann went on to cast Gary Cooper in Man of the West (1958), easily the equal of the Mann-Stewart Westerns and similar in terms of its themes. Writing about noir-Westerns, David Meuel has argued that the Mann-Stewart Westerns, whilst their narratives have no immediate relationship with one another, ‘have a powerful cumulative effect, each complementing and enriching the others’ in a manner that is comparable to John Ford’s Cavalry trilogy or the Ranown Westerns that Budd Boetticher made with Randolph Scott (Meuel, 2015: 116).

With its Northern setting, which is fairly unusual for a Western, The Far Country begins as a fairly studio-bound Western but, as it nears its first half-hour, expands into a beautifully-photographed outdoors Western; as is typical in Mann’s Westerns, the beauty of the landscape is offset by the swiftness and cruelty of the violence. When Jeff and the others near Two Mile Pass, for example, they barely have time to contemplate the landscape in front of them before it is punctuated by the sadistic murder of two prospectors (who are leaving the town of Dawson with their gold) by a gang of men on horseback. All of this is shown in long shot, from the perspective of Jeff and the others. One of the prospectors falls to the floor and attempts to get up but is shot at point blank range by one of the riders. When, towards the end of the film, Jeff persuades Ben to leave Dawson by raft and river – thus avoiding riding through the deadly Two Mile Pass – their departure is interrupted by Gannon’s men, who ride over a hilltop and shoot Ben in the back, stealing their gold. Ben’s death is painful for both Ben and the audience, and during the shootout Jeff’s gun hand is crippled. He rides back into Dawson and, with his crippled gun hand, must devise a way to take out both Gannon and the group of thugs working for him. In Dawson, he is sheltered by Renee whilst he tries to nurse his hand back to a usable state. This sequence, and the crippling of Jeff’s gun hand specifically, has some strong parallels with the similar maiming of the protagonist’s (Dave’s) gun hand in Mann’s later The Man from Laramie – an action which would seem to influence some of the sadism enacted on the anti-heroes of many westerns all’italiana throughout the 1960s, from the vicious beatings administered to Clint Eastwood (and from which he must recover before defeating the antagonists) in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), through the crippling of Django’s (Franco Nero) in Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) to the burning of the protagonist’s (Jean-Louis Trintignant) gun hand in Corbucci’s Il grande silenzio (The Big Silence, 1969).

In her book about Anthony Mann, Jeanine Basinger has argued that the central conflict in The Far Country is between Jeff and the idea of community (Basinger, 2007: 99). In many ways, Jeff is comparable to Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1941): a pessimistic loner, he claims to be motivated entirely by self-interest and refuses to become involved in the affairs of others. It’s a bold performance by Stewart, the closed-off nature of Jeff challenging the audience’s sympathy with the character. Jeff cannot comprehend the concept of altruism. When Ronda Castle hides Jeff in her cabin on the paddle steamer, Jeff asks her why she has done this. ‘Do I have to have a reason?’, Ronda queries in response. ‘Nobody ever did anything for nothing’, Jeff asserts. When, later in the film, Ben suggests to Jeff that they ask Rube for help, Jeff responds angrily by stating, ‘I just can’t get you to understand, can I, Ben? I don’t need other people. I don’t need help. I can take care of me. And in a pinch, I can take care of you too’.

However, Jeff’s bond with his friend Ben suggests that Jeff still holds a shred of humanity; the more socially-minded Ben mediates between Jeff and the community. Ben and Jeff have ridden together for a number of years, and they have made plans to buy a small ranch in Utah together – which in Ben’s discourse is painted as a homosocial utopia. ‘You and me’s been together a lot of years’, Ben reminds Jeff, ‘It’s been good, real good. I ain’t gonna be around too much longer: I’m getting old. But I sort of figured we’d go on together till… till my time come’. The reason why Jeff is so cynical and anti-social is never outlined explicitly but is instead suggested through brief lines of dialogue. One of the key scenes, in this regard, is Jeff’s conversation with Ronda Castle in which she tells him ‘I trusted a man once’. ‘I trusted a woman’, Jeff responds, hinting at a backstory for Jeff that Chase and Mann don’t feel the need to spell out explicitly. Equally subtle is Jeff’s denouncement, later in the film, of the community in Dawson’s stated desire to build a more civilised settlement: ‘All this talk of schools and churches, law and order. It means somebody has to stand up and get himself shot at’, Jeff says. The line of dialogue doesn’t say anything explicitly about Jeff’s ‘backstory’ but contains plenty of suggestion as to what may have happened in Jeff’s past.

The film establishes a love triangle between Jeff, Renee and Ronda Castle. In a nod to the conventions of films noir, in which a ‘good’ woman was often juxtaposed with a ‘fallen’ woman, Jeff finds himself in relationships with two women who represent the opposite of one another: the independent businesswoman Ronda, a brunette who manipulates situations in her favour, and the innocent and selfless Renee, a blonde whose only desire is to save enough money in order to pay for her father to train to become a stomach specialist. Cynical and stand-offish, Ronda is drawn to Jeff because they are similar in terms of their worldview, whilst the idealistic Renee is transfixed by how handsome she believes Jeff to be – despite being perplexed by his selfishness. ‘You’ve got to help people when they need help’, Renee observes at one point in the film. ‘Why?’, Jeff asks sharply, ‘I take care of me. When you’re older, you’ll find that’s the only way’.

Though Gannon may be based on ‘Soapy’ Smith, a real life con artist who was killed in a shootout in Skagway in 1898, the character has some similarities to film versions of Judge Roy Bean – whom Walter Brennan had himself played in William Wyler’s The Westerner (1940). Gannon is an opportunist who sentences criminals in the saloon, at a poker table, with a bottle of whiskey at his side; he is an authority figure who abuses his power, fabricating rules in order to satiate his greed. ‘Why’d you have to take his cattle’, the saloon keeper in Skagway asks Gannon, after Gannon has declared that Jeff should forfeit his cattle for disturbing the peace in the town; ‘Because I wanted ‘em, or isn’t that enough reason?’ Gannon responds forcefully. Following the trial in Skagway’s saloon, Gannon tests Jeff by sliding Jeff’s revolver along the bar to him; Jeff freezes for a moment, clearly contemplating using the gun on Gannon, but Renee interrupts and Jeff realises that Gannon has unloaded the weapon. Had Jeff pointed the gun at Gannon, he would most likely have been killed. A law unto himself, Gannon will not permit anyone to cross the border into Canada without proving they have 100lbs of supplies; and, of course, Gannon is the one who controls the sale of supplies in the town of Skagway. However, Gannon also admits to liking Jeff – presumably for Jeff’s selfishness and ability to handle himself in a challenging situation. The relationship between Jeff and Gannon is not dissimilar to the complex relationships between antagonist and protagonist in Budd Boetticher’s Ranown Westerns – for example, villain Richard Boone’s relationship with Randolph Scott in The Tall T (Boetticher, 1957) – in which the antagonist often displays a grudging admiration for and sympathy with the stoic protagonist. ‘I’m gonna like you’, Gannon tells Jeff after the cattle have ‘busted up’ Gannon’s hanging in Skagway, ‘I’m gonna hang you but I will like you’.


Video

Arrow Academy’s two-disc Blu-ray release of The Far Country contains two separate presentations of the film, each in different aspect ratios. Both of these are in 1080p using the AVC codec, and both are equal in terms of footage, running for 97:00 mins.

Like a number of Universal films of the mid-1950s (such as Douglas Sirk’s 1954 Magnificent Obsession and John Sturges’ 1956 Western Backlash), The Far Country was photographed ‘flat’ but with the intention of it being presented at two different ratios – 1.85:1 and 2:1 – depending on the cinema where it was being exhibited. The photography on this and the other aforementioned Universal-produced pictures was composed with this dual ratio in mind; hence these films have a noticeable tendency not to utilise closeups. The previously-available DVD releases of The Far Country have contained open-matte 1.33:1 presentations; Arrow Academy’s Blu-ray remedies this by offering the viewer the option of choosing to watch the film in either 1.85:1 or 2:1 – both of which may legitimately be considered The Far Country’s ‘original’ aspect ratio. On disc one, the film is presented in the more ‘standard’ post-1950s Academy ratio of 1.85:1. Disc two contains a presentation of the film in the slightly wider 2:1 ratio. Each presentation fills 27.7Gb of space on its respective disc.

Whilst both aspect ratios are ‘original’, for the reasons outlined above, it is noticeable that in many instances the compositions in the 1.85:1 presentation seem more balanced along the vertical axis, with a little more headroom for the hats and more space in the foreground for the landscapes. (See the full-sized screengrabs at the bottom of this review.)

Based on a new restoration of the film from its negative, most of the film looks superb, with the small caveat that some of the optical shots (including some of the matte work) look a little more rough, with starker contrast and a coarser appearance. The level of detail, on the whole, is excellent, with fine detail being present throughout – from the shots of actors to the sweeping landscapes. Colours are deep and consistent, skintones being naturalistic and the landscape of the Yukon being articulated through colder hues. Contrast levels are equally pleasing, with richly defined midtones being balanced by a stable drop-off into the toe. This is particularly evident in the day for night shots, which are rich and detailed. The presentation is carried by a strong encode, on both discs, which ensures that the picture retains a filmlike aesthetic, the structure of the 35mm source material being articulated very well.

Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. These include comparisons of the 1.85:1 presentation with the 2:1 presentation. Please click the screengrabs to enlarge them.




Audio

The film is presented with a LPCM 1.0 mono track. This isn’t showy, by any stretch of the imagination, but has good range and depth – particularly evident with the gunshots that are heard on the soundtrack. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included. These are easy to read and accurate in transcribing the dialogue.

Extras

The disc includes:
DISC ONE:
- The Film (1.85:1 presentation)

- Audio commentary with critic Adrian Martin
. Martin focuses largely on the narrative of The Far Country, considering the manner in which Ben and Jeff’s friendship is at the heart of the film’s story – and represented through the bell that Ben gives Jeff, which plays a pivotal role in the narrative. Martin suggests that The Far Country should be considered a ‘Northern’ rather than a Western, owing to its setting in the North of the US. Martin considers how the film examines a theme of money and nascent capitalism, represented through the opportunist Gannon.

- ‘American Frontiers: Anthony Mann at Universal’ (33:06)
. This excellent new documentary features input from film historian Alan K Rode, writer C Courtney Joyner, critics Michael Schlesinger and Rob Word, and script supervisor Michael Preece. The participants reflect on the Westerns that Anthony Mann made for Universal Pictures, discussing the stages of Mann’s career – from the films noir, through the Westerns, on to epics. How Mann’s Westerns redirected James Stewart’s career is considered. The Mann-Stewart Westerns are discussed in sequence, the circumstances surrounding the production of Winchester ’73 being considered first. They discuss Mann’s approach to directing these Westerns and consider some of the thematic connections between the films.

- ‘Mann of the West’ (23:50)
. Emphasising The Far Country, Kim Newman looks at Mann’s Westerns of the 1950s. Newman talks about Mann’s Westerns within the context of other Western pictures of the decade. Newman suggests that of Mann’s collaborations with Stewart, The Far Country is the film in which Stewart’s character has the least personal stake in the outcome of the narrative. Newman talks about the contributions of some of the cast members, enabling him to reflect through a discussion of the character of Rube on drunkenness and alcoholism in Westerns more generally. (The audio on this interview seems very ‘thin’, for some reason, though Newman’s comments are audible throughout.)

- Trailer (2:18)
.

- Image Galleries: Production Stills (16:30); Art Concepts (3:30); Posters and Lobby Cards (7:10)
.

DISC TWO:
- The Film (2:1 presentation)

Overall

Featuring a supporting cast that includes many recognisable faces (such as Harry Morgan, Royal Dano and Jack Elam), The Far Country is an excellent Western. However, it’s testament to the quality of the Mann-Stewart Westerns generally that The Far Country is, along with Bend of the River, a lesser entry into this group. (That is simply because some of the others – The Naked Spur and The Man from Laramie, particularly – are so exceptional.) As Adrian Martin suggests in his commentary, The Far Country is, given its setting, truly a ‘Northern’ more than a ‘Western’, and it shows a society on the cusp of change (taking place in the Yukon at the start of the Klondike Gold Rush), exploring how opportunists such as Gannon (or ‘Soapy’ Smith) can exploit the political and social vacuum to satiate their own economic/narcissistic desires. Jeff professes to be anchored to a similar level of self-interest to Gannon but is ultimately redeemed because, at the core of his self, he exhibits a level of altruism that is necessary for a community to heal and (re)build itself.

Arrow Academy’s release of The Far Country is exceptional, remedying the issue with the film’s aspect ratio on the DVD format (previously-available DVDs presented the film in open-matte 1.33:1) by offering the viewer two options: the more widely-seen 1.85:1 presentation and an alternate 2:1 presentation. Both of these may be considered the film’s ‘original’ aspect ratio, for the reasons outlined in the ‘Video’ section of this review. The superb presentation of the main feature is supported by some excellent contextual material; perhaps the best of these is ‘American Frontiers: Anthony Mann at Universal’, the new documentary looking at the trajectory of the Mann-Stewart films generally. For Western fans (or fans of Mann and Stewart), this is an absolutely essential purchase and is arguably one of the best releases of the year.

References:
Basinger, Jeanine, 2007: Anthony Mann. Wesleyan University Press (Revised Edition)

Chapman, James, 2004: Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present. London: Reaktion Books

Meuel, David, 2015: The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962. London: McFarland

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