A self-minded adventurer locks horns with a crooked lawman while driving cattle to Dawson.A self-minded adventurer locks horns with a crooked lawman while driving cattle to Dawson.A self-minded adventurer locks horns with a crooked lawman while driving cattle to Dawson.
But when I saw this movie on TV - as part of a commemorative Jimmy Stewart weekend upon his death - I finally GOT IT: I understood, at least in theory, what the Western mythos has to offer as a serious thematic preoccupation (aside from just action and thrills). It is the push-pull between lawlessness and order; the American West represented freedom, but also the prospect of the wild, the untamed. Respectable folk could get hurt out there. Which, of course, meant that perhaps - just perhaps - it wasn't meant for respectable folk, and that the only residents should be the amoral and the shifty, those who dispensed justice strictly from the barrel of their revolvers, and where kill or be killed would ever be the law of the land. In such an environment, of course, the true heroes are the ones who are ornery and free-spirited enough to be out there in the first place (and so reject "society," at least as it manifested itself on the Eastern seaboard), and yet have enough sense of justice to believe that a society based on chaos and fear just IS NOT RIGHT. Catching and examining that disparity between law and disorder IN THE MAIN CHARACTER HIMSELF is, I believe (after seeing this movie), the highest and truest goal of any Western. Sadly, it is so often not the case, as the white hats are completely white, the black ones completely black (and let's not even get started talking about the Indians, ok) and there is precious little shades of gray in between.
Not in this one. Jimmy Stewart plays a blatant fortune hunter who follows the trail of miners before him into the Alaskan wilderness to prospect for gold. He is joined in this by his lifelong buddy, played by Walter Brennan (perhaps the Western cliché character to end them all - but nevertheless enjoyable here, as always) - and no one else. Pointedly, they are out for themselves, and while Stewart displays his patented charm (come on, we could never really dislike the guy, now could we?), we are left with little doubt that his is basically a self-centered, self-interested character: none of his "Gosh" or "Oh golly gee" humanism is allowed to come through. Or, rather, it has to be EARNED, by the end of the picture, in the way I described above. He must confront the lawlessness in himself, and weigh it against the need for order and justice which are so blatantly lacking in the border town which serves as the miners' starting point on their gold dust trail. This town is ruled tightly by its wicked sheriff, Mr. Gannon, played by John McIntire in one of the best "bad guy" performances I've ever seen. He comes on with so much charm and humor, and has such a relaxed and interesting rapport with Stewart, that it actually takes awhile to recognize that he *is* the bad guy - so that when it finally sinks in, it does so with double force. Further, by establishing a type of breezy (if necessarily guarded) camaraderie between McIntire and Stewart, the film plays up the notion of how close in temperament they really are - and so how far a moral distance Stewart must walk by the end of the film.
I won't go through all the twists and turns the plot takes - see those for yourself (as well as the rugged and gorgeous Alaskan scenery - filmed on location, mind you, not cheap painted stills that the studio made up). What's key here is how much this story focuses upon character, with great dialogue and character interaction substituting for gunplay much of the time - although the film has just enough action and adventure to prevent it from ever being static (read: "talky"). Definitely one of the greatest performances I've seen from Stewart, showing he could play the renegade, the "man's man" just as convincingly as the decent and upright guy next door. If anything, in fact, his "everyman" qualities lend greater strength to his characterization, making him seem less mythic or overblown - -like, say, Eastwood or John Wayne - and more a three-dimensional personage. His relationship with Brennan is well-played: understated, but nevertheless touching (with a faint suggestion of George and Lenny from "Of Mice and Men" - an altogether different type of "western").
I certainly have more Westerns to see, but this is for now my favorite, and the yardstick by which I will necessarily judge all the others. It deserves to be much better known and appreciated than it is.
- May 12, 2000