Anthony Mann was possibly second only to Akira Kurosawa in the ranks of filmmakers with a sense of tactile relationship between action to environment. Bend of the River takes a potentially standard-issue western story and fires it with narrative rigour and a sense of environment so vivid you practically smell the pine needles, fresh water and mountain snow. Mann’s framings and lighting are painterly, but never pretentiously so, and rather than the fussy framings of Ford, his pictures bustle with busy, rough-hewn life. A number of Mann’s favourite themes and approaches to storytelling mark out this film, the least well-known of his Westerns with Jimmy Stewart. Stewart’s hero, McLintock, and his sometime-comrade Cole (Arthur Kennedy), are both men with evil pasts, who both claim to have reformed, and who share a dark duality.
Consistently in Mann’s films, there exists a dialogue between the destructive nature of man, and also the question as to whether or not mastered arts of destruction are in fact necessary to civilisation. The point usually comes when the hero is pushed past the limits of civility by other, destructive men. The story begins in medias res, already tumbling forward in events, and reveals the plot background on the run, as McLintock leads a band of settlers across the Oregonian steppes hoping to build a town in the Columbia River valley. He rescues Cole from a lynching, and the two men quickly recognise each-other merely through their names and places of origin, as veterans of the Kansas-Missouri border raids. The duo swiftly prove their mettle in taking care of an Indian raider party with their bushwhacker arts, establishing both men as cunning, subtle, ruthless warriors. The question of the narrative then becomes, are they really on the side of the angels? The question comes to a head when McLintock, Cole, and gambler pal Trey (young Rock Hudson, showing star quality), find themselves at odds in trying to ship a load of supplies to the settlers. A gold rush has brought hordes of miners to the district, and the supplies have become worth their weight in gold, prompting an astonishing amount of bloodshed over a few barrels of flour and some cattle – life staples have become reasons to kill.
Mann’s familiar neurotic intensity takes a while to build, but finally arrives as McLintock, betrayed and furious, tails his enemies, striking like a ghost from the forest and whittling down their numbers before his final battle with Cole, the two men wrestling in a river, entwining their essential split-personality conflict in a natural torrent that reflects the total moral flux that can only be stabilised by Stewart's victory, and his reintegration into the society of the settlers. Although generally neglected in comparison to The Naked Spur and Winchester '73, Bend of the River holds it head up with them for drama and quality of filmmaking.