Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Tuesday's Overlooked Movies: Bend of the River

I have a vague memory of watching this movie on TV at my sister's house around 1970, but that's all I remembered about it. So when we saw it recently it was almost like watching one I hadn't seen before.

BEND OF THE RIVER was an early collaboration between James Stewart and director Anthony Mann, and it's a strong entry in the series of Westerns they did together. Stewart plays a tough but decent hombre with a shady past who hires on to guide a group of settlers to Oregon. Along the way he encounters and befriends a gunman played by Arthur Kennedy, who also seems like a decent sort at first. Since he's Arthur Kennedy, though, you know that sooner or later he and Stewart will wind up on opposing sides.

That takes a while to come about, and in the meantime the settlers reach Oregon (not without some Indian fights along the way) and settle into their new homes with the promise of supplies being brought upriver by one of the merchants in Portland. Something goes wrong, though, and the food they need to survive through the winter doesn't show up. Stewart and the leader of the group, played by the fine character actor Jay C. Flippen, set out to discover why.

There are a couple of romantic subplots, one involving Stewart and the classy, beautiful Julia Adams, the other involving one of the immigrant girls and a fast-on-the-draw gambler played by a very young Rock Hudson.

One of the nice things about this movie is that there's a lot of moral ambiguity to the characters. Many of them are a mixture of good and evil and can't quite seem to decide which side to come down on. As a result, allegiances change throughout the film and it's hard to predict exactly what's going to happen. That creates some effective suspense, courtesy of the screenplay by Borden Chase and the source novel by Bill Gulick, which was titled BEND OF THE SNAKE.

On a side note, BEND OF THE RIVER is one of the few movies I've seen based on a novel by an author I actually met. Bill Gulick, who passed away last year, was a regular at the WWA conventions during the years I was attending most of them, too. He was also the guy who got extremely angry at a Spur Awards banquet, as I suspect some of you who were there recall. At that same convention, I rode down the Snake River on a raft, but that was over in Wyoming, not Oregon where BEND OF THE RIVER is set.

I enjoyed this one a lot. It's a good, solid traditional Western, and well worth watching.


Todd Mason said...

Was Gulick angry about the lack of traditional westerns on the ballot?

This does look like a film I'd enjoy down to the ground.

Bill Crider said...

The only WWA convention I ever managed to attend was the one in Jackson Hole. And I think that must be the one you're talking about.

James Reasoner said...

Gulick had some sort of grudge against Gerry Spence, the famous defense attorney who was the guest speaker at the Spur Award banquet. I never heard the details, but I recall that Gulick stood up during Spence's talk and started yelling at him. Spence's bodyguards were ready to step in if Gulick made a move toward him. Some of Gulick's friends got him out of the banquet hall before things went any farther. There was some controversy among the membership about whether Spence should have been invited in the first place. Despite all that, the convention in Jackson was the best WWA I ever attended.

Cap'n Bob said...

Spence was a lawyer who had a habit of defending the scum of the earth types. I can understand Gulick's anger. Spence does seem an odd choice for a WWA speaker, though, Maybe it was the fringed buckskin jackets he affected.

James Reasoner said...

I think Spence lived somewhere in the area, so it was fairly easy to get him, plus the controversy meant that the convention might get some news coverage.

Derek M. Koch said...

You had me at Julie Adams.