While John Wayne and John Ford might be the best known partnership between actor and director in the Western genre, James Stewart and Anthony Mann are very deserving of recognition as well. Both were responsible during the 1950’s of creating vivid movies with characters that had a hard and dark edge to them; coming in at the middle of their partnership was The Far Country, a western set in Alaska – a “Northern” if you will – that built upon their previous works. Previously released on DVD by Universal, Arrow has licensed the film for Blu-ray release as part of their Academy line.
The Production: 4/5
In 1896, lone cowboy Jeff Webster (James Stewart) tries to send a herd of cattle into Alaska – with his closest partner and friend Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan) – in time for the Klondike Gold Rush. However, the road to Dawson is paved with many twists and turns; among them, locking horns with crooked Skagway town boss Gannon (John McIntire) and being caught between the affections of two women (Ruth Roman & Corinne Calvet). When Dawson begins to become overrun by lawlessness, Jeff wants to stay out of it, but has to reconsider when tragedy hits close to home…
The Far Country comes in the middle of the famed collaboration between director Anthony Mann and actor James Stewart, and it may represent the most cynical Western the duo ever made together. While previous outings did have Stewart playing a man with a past, here his loner is noticeably more hard edged and cynical in comparison to previous efforts; case in point – the scene where Jeff turns down the Sheriff’s badge in Dawson, claiming he looks out only for himself. Providing a stunning backdrop are the Canadian Rockies filling in for Alaska, at times nearly dwarfing the plot and its characters; another distinguishing trait is that the main villain here – Gannon – is quite charming and humorous at times, another nod to previous Mann westerns, except here in a position of power. There’s really not much to complain about here, since Mann keeps the story moving at a brisk pace and delivers some very well staged action scenes – especially the final shootout – making The Far Country another notch in the proverbial belt of its director and star during the 1950’s.
Out of the many westerns he made during this time period, James Stewart arguably has his most cynical and dark performance here; George Bailey is certainly nowhere in plain sight with this role, completing the transformation of Stewart into weightier, dramatic fare. Walter Brennan – the first actor to win three Academy Awards – adds to his impressive resume of character performances as Ben, Jeff’s closest friend and confidante; John McIntire makes for a very colorful heavy as the crooked judge who crosses paths with Jeff several times in both Skagway and Dawson. As the main female lead, Ruth Roman is notable as the saloon proprietress who may harbor some ulterior motives; Corinne Calvet – in a notable deviation from her vamp roles is movies like Rope of Sand (1949) and What Price Glory (1952) – casts a memorable impression as the ingenue smitten with Jeff (“I’m not a freckleface!”). Other notable appearances here include Jay C. Flippen as the drunkard turned Dawson sheriff, Connie Gilchrist, Kathleen Freeman, and Connie Van as the proprietors of a small Dawson restaurant, Chubby Johnson as an ill fated miner, and Harry Morgan (on the verge of TV immortality in Dragnet), Steve Brodie, Robert J. Wilke, Royal Dano, and Jack Elam as Gannon’s hired muscle who cause trouble in Dawson until the final act.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in two aspect ratios – 1:85:1 on Disc 1 & 2:00:1 on Disc 2 – in this new HD transfer. For the most part, film grain is organic with noticeable shifts in density in scenes involving optical effects, and fine details are noticeable and faithfully rendered. The color palette is stronger in comparison to the previous Universal DVD and not as muddy, while there’s some noticeable problems like scratches, dirt, and registry errors, but none that are too distracting enough to jar the viewer. In short, while it’s not perfect, this HD transfer does represent an improvement over Universal’s previous DVD release and likely the best the film will ever look on home video. One final note: if you’re curious on which aspect ratio to view the film in, go with the 1:85:1 version, as it contains more visual information.
The original mono soundtrack is presented on a PCM track for this release. Dialogue is both strong and clear, while the sound mix is rendered faithfully and the music score (composed by an uncredited combination of Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner, and Herman Stein) has clarity, ambiance and fidelity without being too intrusive. There’s very minimal instances of issues like distortion, crackling or hissing present, which means that this is likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video.
Special Features: 4/5
Commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin – Recorded for this release, Martin talks about the movie, its production history and offers up some insight and analysis as well; another solid track from him and a nice complement to the movie.
American Frontiers: Anthony Mann at Universal (33:06) – In this new program, the career of Anthony Mann at Universal-International is looked at, including his non-Westerns; among those interviewed are Mann assistant Michael Preece, film historians C. Courtney Joyner, Michael Schlesinger, Alan K. Rode, and Rob Word.
Mann of the West (23:50) – Author and film historian Kim Newman offers up some insight and appreciation on the movie and Mann in this newly filmed feature.
Still Galleries – There are three galleries presented here: Production Stills (99/16:30), Art Concepts (21/3:30) & Posters/Lobby Cards (43/7:10)
Theatrical Trailer (2:18)
Booklet feat. an essay by Philip Kemp (1st printing only)
The Far Country is a notable entry in the long collaboration between Anthony Mann and James Stewart due to its more cynical edge in comparison to previous fare like Bend of the River (1952), Winchester ’73 (1950), and The Naked Spur (1953). Arrow has done a solid job in their Blu-ray release of the movie, with an HD transfer that bests previous home video versions (with two aspect ratio options) and a great – if slight – offering of special features giving insight into the movie. Highly recommended.
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