may be the best stewart/mann collaboration, and that’s saying a lot. i think that winchester ’73 is generally more highly regarded, but i like this one better because i think it’s got a more round cast than winchester ’73. the plot follows stewart and brennan who are taking a herd of cattle into the yukon region in the late winter/early spring. they figure on making a bundle on the cattle and retiring in utah afterwards, but stewart’s strong-willed personality gets them in trouble along the way with john mcintire (who plays a sheriff and selfish entrepreneur).
j.c flippen, walter brennan, ruth roman, john mcintire and corinne calvet are all fantastic in supporting roles; and of course stewart is fantastic in the lead. flippen plays a drunk, as usual, and, as usual, does a great job of being sympathetic without being overly pathetic. walter brennan plays stewart’s sidekick and their onscreen relationship is fantastic. brennan, along with calvet, act as stewart’s conscience. stewart is the type who does the right thing only when it benefits him. after witnessing a robbery he shoots one of the bandits and remarks later that he killed the bandit because he shot at him, rather than because he was a thief. such is the essence of stewart’s solipsistic character. unlike the characters of brennan and calvet, the characters of roman and mcintire represent stewart’s darker potential. they’re both utterly selfish, capable and capitalistic. i found myself respecting the capability of these two characters, but liking the less capable, but more moral, characters of calvet and brennan.
brennan and stewart are almost like an old couple. they plan on retiring in utah together and stewart always carries a bell on his horse which was given to him by brennan before the film picks up their story. this bell was to be placed on the front door of their future home in utah, and as such it becomes a symbol of the hope that stewart carries with him despite his cold exterior. it’s a great symbol and the one that mann ends the film with.
as is true with most westerns, the setting itself is a great vehicle for the themes of the story. far country takes place on the extreme frontier – alaska – during a gold rush; it’s a great setting because the law is in its nascent stages and money is plentiful, or, as one character puts it: “gold means stealing, and stealing leads to murder.” among all this is stewart who just wants to stroll through life without having to touch, or be touched by, the rest of the world. in the end he comes to terms with the reality of the world. what’s strange, though, is that things aren’t completely cut and dry. yes, he learns that he must be a part of the environment…. in the final sequence he kills mcintire, the film ends on the ringing bell, and he is standing next to calvet (the female embodiment of his conscience)…but at the same time his association with brennan is what gets him shot. that is, if stewart had gone on his own he probably would have been free and clear. perhaps this makes stewart’s decision to change his philosophy all the more powerful.