Film reviews

The Far Country (1954) – Blu-ray Review

Contains mild spoilers.

There’s a lovely 23-minute extra on the new Arrow Blu-ray disc of The Far Country which features the ever-knowledgeable Kim Newman providing some excellent critique and detail on Antony Mann’s 1954 Alaskan Western. It is the type of valuable extra that will neatly aid a young film studies student who has designs on becoming the next Phillip French. It also, however, puts to shame the bitter ex film student who merely saw a moderately entertaining Western which could while away an hour and a half on a lazy Sunday, but perhaps do little else. Then again this may be the point. A film such as this possibly obtains a special release not just due to the fame of its director and star (one James Stewart), but because the film itself is simply dependable. A solidly made Western that does what you want westerns to do. Heroes are made. Guns are slung. There’s a smile whenever justice is done. There’s nothing wrong with that. Mann makes a film which makes it easy to believe there’s nothing really to it. But in that lies so much of the charm.

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It helps that your lead actor is, of course, Jimmy Stewart, a man who loaned himself to four of Mann’s westerns. This, his fourth collaboration with Mann, has Stewart as a rather calculating, self-minded cattle driver, who decides upon seeing if his luck will bring him the riches of the Klondike Gold Rush. While we know Stewart has given us more cynical characters than we sometimes wish to remember, it’s still strange to see him here. At times patronising, often out for himself, sometimes underhanded and often with a knowing smile. It’s the common “man alone” type that we see in the western, but it’s attractive to see through the eyes of the earthy Stewart. Mostly because we want to see how far he’ll push things before they get worse.

They get pretty bad. Stewart’s character, Jeff Webster, is so self-centred that it takes the dubious deeds of a corrupt judge (John McIntire) to fully wake himself out of his mode. His reasoning for his absorption is pretty lame; the events which occur to make him see the light are uneven when placed in contrast. Said events include McIntire’s judge inflicting penalties on townsfolk that would have the Sheriff of Nottingham giving him the wink and pointy finger. A pivotal moment, in which a community town sheriff is put to shame by not only the judge, but by Webster more so, is perhaps the strongest scene in the film, and indicative of what Mann is suggesting within the framework.

This is indeed a film in which the very idea of a small commune banding together and showing the lone gunman the ideals of a righteous way is quite prominent. It’s also seen in many Westerns and is pretty much all to be seen here. It’s easy to forget how the likes of Ford, Eastwood, and Peckinpah – amongst others – spoilt the viewer in terms of what one can get out of a western. I’m mighty sure John Carpenter holds a strong interest in the likes of this as well as Howard Hawks Rio Bravo (1959). I may have to do some reading.

But it’s within its simplicity the film holds its charm. There’s a clear reason why this is the fourth collaboration between Mann and Stewart and both actor and director both work well in tandem, with Stewart’s down to earth authenticity matching well with Mann’s workmanlike craft. The craftily used tinkling motif which has made its mark throughout the movie is a solid example of the companionship. We know it will crop up later, Mann ensures that it’s foreshadowed, yet it’s Stewart’s earnestness that sells everything. Particularly in the film’s final scene which leads to an intensely claustrophobic and skewed shootout which feels very different from what is often expected. The film, of course, plays out accordingly, yet watching through the eyes of the modern era allows common tropes and archetypes to feel a touch more vibrant than expected.

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From a collectors standpoint, the Limited Edition 2 disc set is well stacked with consideration as to how extras are viewed today. The film is presented in a 4K restoration in two different aspects ratios on each disc (1:85.1 and 2:00.1 respectively). There is a new feature-length commentary from Mann biographer Alan K Rode, Western author C. Courtney Joyner, Script Supervisor Michael Preece, and critics Michael Schlesinger and Rob Word. This is along with an image gallery, original trailer, and the appraisal from Kim Newman. Safe to say that while the film itself is pitch-perfect for a lazy Sunday, there’s enough here to help keep a collector busy to ensure an informed Monday.

The Far Country is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Academy.

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