Frontier Commodities: Tales of Greed in Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, and The Far Country

ESSAY by Josh Kierstead


In Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River (1952), the protagonist Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart) twice journeys to the fledgling city of Portland, Oregon. During the first visit, McLyntock is warmly received by everyone he meets, as are the settlers he is stewarding. In particular, the local head businessman, Tom Hendricks, is downright ebullient, and counsels the settlers to purchase food for the winter, even though it is only spring when they arrive in Portland. Hendricks arranges to deliver the food the settlers purchase to their camp, in September., but it never arrives. When McLyntock returns to Portland in mid-October to ascertain why the food has still not arrived, he learns that the city is in the middle of a gold rush. And, with this rush, the cost of goods has spiked, the town has become replete with loud casinos and brothels, and Hendricks has reneged on his deal with McLyntock and the settlers. The settler Jeremy Baile aptly characterizes the transformation of Hendricks (and Portland) when he quips, “He was [nice], until he found gold.”



James Stewart and Anthony Mann (seated l-r)


Similar vignettes of greed and violence date back to Mann’s time as a B-noir director for Producers Releasing Company and Eagle-Lion. However, Mann only later fully articulated his skepticism of capitalism and unrestricted free markets with Bend of the River, The Naked Spur and The Far Country through their repeated portrayal of those on the frontier who have no protections against the predations of unscrupulous businessmen and outlaws. In these films, Mann evolves methodically in his treatment of commodities and their exchange from his earlier B-noirs by linking them to basic survival, as well as greed. To this end, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, and The Far Country are scathing critiques of hyper-individualism and unregulated markets that jeopardize the health and survival of individuals, communities, and societies. However, scholars more often define and analyze these films in terms of their loner antiheroes. Critical consensus on these three middle films typically articulates well their larger concerns. For example, Basinger declares that Stewart’s antiheroes in Bend of the River through The Far Country are “in every case not only a man with a secret, but a man who seeks to clarify his relationship with society” (Basinger: 88). She then examines how Stewart’s character wants to integrate himself into society throughout Bend of the River, but is a pariah and wishes to stay one in both The Naked Spur and The Far Country. In this analysis, Basinger provides a broad, yet sensible overview of Stewart’s characters and their motivations, but does not address the larger economic forces that shape Stewart’s characters. Although, the films do delve into the deep mental recesses of Stewart’s conflicted and violent characters, they are more interesting for the manner in which they expose the effects of greed and violence engendered by unregulated markets. This essay will attempt to refocus the ways that scholars approach these films to better articulate how they operate—not only through allegory, but also straightforward critique—as deliberate attempts to represent on the impact of capitalism and market forces on individuals and communities.


Body as Commodity in The Naked Spur




The Naked Spur parallels an earlier Mann/Stewart collaboration Winchester ’73 insofar as the bounty hunter Howard Kemp (Stewart) pursues an object that promises to enrich him across the expanse of the West. However, in The Naked Spur, Mann remaps the promise of material gain object of Winchester ’73 onto the human body itself. Whereas Kemp pursues a firearm in Winchester ’73 , his quarry in The Naked Spur is the outlaw Vandergroat, whose body represents that potential for material gain. In an overtly illustrative moment, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) growls to Kemp, “[Vandergroat’s] not a man; he’s a sack of money!” For Tate, Vandergroat represents a bag of money because only his physical body retains any exchange value. His humanity—i.e. his soul/essence—is of no value to the market. Yet, Mann is not suggesting that only the Vandergroats of the world are bags of money and the rest of humanity is exempt from being a commodity. Instead, Mann implies that all individuals are potentially bags of money, but that this commodification will only be made apparent in specific situations.

The commodification of Vandergroat’s physical body—his labor potential is elided—suggests that any unregulated market, here represented by the frontier’s free market, maintains an exploitative position towards human life. For example, even after the simpleton Tate recognizes that Kemp and Anderson are effacing Vandergroat’s humanity by pursuing his body, qua commodity, Tate nonetheless rides alongside them in their attempt to bring the outlaw back to Kansas and claim their reward. In fact, Tate deviates from this mission only after the outlaw promises to show him the location of an untapped gold claim, a prize significantly greater than his projected share of the bounty.

The Naked Spur foreshadows Tate’s death in an introductory scene that demonstrates how his desire for material wealth instills in him a desperate sense of avarice, and gullibility, when it comes to potential gain. As Tate brews coffee, Kemp sneaks up and holds him at gunpoint. Eventually, Kemp holsters his gun after he determines¬ Tate to be trustworthy. Kemp subsequently attempts to recruit Tate’s help in locating Vandergroat, Initially, Tate feigns disregard for the pursuit of Vandergroat, asserting that he is searching for a gold claim that can make him rich and does not have time to search for an outlaw. Tate then sighs, as if drawing Kemp in, “Helping you don’t put no money in my pocket.” Kemp then pulls out a bag of money to entice Tate back into the conversation. Their cat and mouse game continues back and forth, as both characters manipulate the other toward converging goals. Tate desires money; Kemp desires assistance in apprehending his quarry, which will lead to his enrichment.

As the scene continues, it becomes apparent that Tate believes Kemp is attempting to exploit him. Insofar as his labor—pursuing Vandergroat—subjects him to danger, Tate understands the potential pay for that labor insufficient. Sensing Tate’s reluctance, Kemp begins to jingle coins in his hand. The coins make an unnatural sound: whereas real coins make a metallic sound when hitting the palm, these coins rattle like a diamondback tail. The sound functions as both a warning of the mortal danger that awaits them in their pursuit of Vandergroat, as well as an inducement to proceed, heedless of the danger and impending violence.


Food as Commodity in Bend of the River




The gold rush in Bend of the River‘s second visit to Portland, Oregon is an overt representation of the harmful effects of the greed that the promise of material wealth inspires on the frontier. Portland’s formerly tranquil streets are transformed by the din of brothels, saloons, and casinos, all spaces (and markets) for vice enabled by the influx of gold. In addition to gold, food is a second commodity that serves as an impetus for greed and, consequently, betrayal. For example, when McLyntock and Cole steal the food and transport it upriver, a hitherto latent sense of greed and violence emerges in Cole. He betrays McLyntock by staging a mutiny and leaves him for dead in the mountains, all because McLyntock would not sell the food to a group of miners for a sharp profit.

Businessmen also exploit the settlers. Hendricks, for instance, deceives them by claiming that their pre-paid food has not arrived; the film indicates that the market of the frontier offers no protections well-meaning people, as small groups of outlaws and unscrupulous businessmen can withhold purchased goods with no legal recourse for the aggrieved parties. Although Hendricks knows that the settlers will die without food, the commodity of exchange is now too valuable to deliver for the agreed upon price. In fact, Portland residents consider McLyntock and Cole outlaws for seizing the food for which they had already paid. With no regulation or honoring of deals, only those who strike gold will receive sustenance because of inflation. Bend of the River advocates for society to provide both fiduciary oversight and basic protections for the downtrodden. The film suggests that the onus of enforcing business agreements should be on the government and not the business owners themselves, the implication being that these business owners will become more hostile towards the community when there is no bulwark against their greed-driven financial interests. Furthermore, the film argues that communities should provide for one another since there is no stronger protection against profiteers than community-based cooperation and support. The little girl who offers McLyntock a biscuit at the start of the film is representative of the communal support and generosity that the film suggests is required for survival on the frontier, especially when this generosity is juxtaposed with the greed of Hendricks and Cole, who both betray their community by hoarding valuable provisions that are inextricably linked to the survival of the community.


Cattle as Commodity in The Far Country




In a slow and deliberate fashion, Bend of the River and The Naked Spur each reveal the power of commodities, and the potential for material gain that they represent, to inspire greed and betrayal in otherwise decent people. By contrast, The Far Country renders its characters as already possessing venal and savage instincts before the start of the diegesis. Within the first few minutes, the audience learns that Jeff Webster (Stewart) has already killed two men who wanted to turn back on his cattle drive. Soon thereafter, the film introduces a corrupt judge, Gannon, who spuriously impounds Webster’s cattle, positioning the cattle as the contested site over which Gannon and Webster will vie for ownership.

Throughout the film, the herd of cattle inspires violent struggle among those looking to profit from their sale. The cattle function in much the same way as the food in Bend of the River and Vandergroat’s body in The Naked Spur. In The Far Country, Webster drives his herd of cattle recklessly through the crowded streets of Skagway, Alaska and looks to land a fortune by exploiting the high prices in Dawson City, Yukon. While Bend of the River positions Stewart’s character as fighting against these reckless urges, and The Naked Spur has him indulge them before he ultimately repudiates them, The Far Country has him sell the cattle to the wealthy and corrupt businesswoman Castle. As such, Webster capitulates to the greed that drives him throughout the film, at the expense of the community (which will be forced to eat the less desirable bear meat, rather than the exorbitantly priced beef).

The strange, dark comedy of the film thus does not espouse hyper-individualism, of which Webster is representative, but mocks it and the lust/greed for commodities and material welath that it entails. Everything, including the law, is contorted according the whims and desires of greedy individuals who value material commodities above the needs of the community. For instance, Gannon, the judge, contorts the rule of law when he forces settlers crossing from Alaska in the Yukon to buy 100 pounds of food. A bearded miner replies, “But I can get by on 85. I don’t eat much—hardly nothin’!” and Gannon counters, “You’ll eat—and when you run short you’ll go killin’ and stealin’ what belongs to somebody else on account of you won’t have enough. Now get in there and buy another 15 pounds of food.” Such comments position Gannon as a voice of reason, yet he is anything but reasonable. In the world of The Far Country, his ostensible concern for the community is, in fact, malfeasance in the service greed.

Mann also gleans dark comedy from the now-affluent Webster, who feels the need to purchase mining equipment, despite his earlier promise to Tatum that they would use their riches to establish a farm in Utah. Webster never seems content, no matter how much wealth he has acquired. He made a fortune selling his cattle at a steep profit, yet he desires more. Although the film presents this desire as symbolic of an emotional void, Webster believes that his morose disposition is the result of not having acquired enough material wealth. Thus, Webster comes to represent the insatiable desire to achieve happiness through acquisition. The Far Country envisions a future in which Webster’s pursuit of material wealth ultimately destroys any hope he has of leading a fulfilling life. In this, The Far Country‘s conclusion is the most ironic of all three middle films. Although Webster believes that material gain will grant him happiness, in the end, it is his pursuit of this happiness that precipitates the tragedies that befall him.


The Post-Film Return of the Commodity

Importantly, all three films trace the influence of the movement of commodities across space. As mentioned, Bend of the River returns twice to both Portland and the settler’s establishment, and Mann uses this cyclical movement to examine the changes that have occurred during the interlude between the first and second visit. In Portland, the surfeit of a precious commodity—gold—overwhelms the town and causes it to spiral into disorder. At the settler’s camp, by contrast, the acquisition of a primary commodity—food—lends the community a renewed sense of hope.

Stewart’s characters move between spaces and commodities in their quest to understand their relationship towards civilization and communities. The Far Country offers little resolution or hope and, in this respect, culminates Mann/Stewart’s progressively bleak examination of effective of capitalism, on individuals and communities, from Bend of the River onward. In the end, Webster does not reject his consumerism and Mann implies that this selfishness will continue to leave him with no purpose or direction. Stewart’s character learns little to nothing from his journey; his tragedy, though, is an effective heuristic for the audience. Webster is broken and corrupted beyond repair not because he cannot escape the commodities that drive him to ruin, but because he does not care to understand why he should escape their influence in the first place.

Although critics, like Basinger, have argued that the endings of these three middle films provide a clear sense of Stewart’s character’s position/future, all three films arguably conclude his endeavors on ambivalent notes that defer questions of moral betterment and potential happiness to the future. Will Stewart’s characters forever abandon their quests for material commodities because of their new-found emotional and sexual fulfillment? Will the frontier be purged of such overwhelming greed with the impending arrival of civilization? Mann poses such questions because they project doubt towards the contemporary and whether the economic policies of present provide better safeguards for the common man than those observed on the unregulated frontier.



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Simons, John L., and Robert Merrill. 2011. Peckinpah’s Tragic Westerns: A Critical Study. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland.


Josh Kierstead (MAPH’10) is a Film Studies Ph.D. student at the University of Iowa. Before coming to Iowa, Josh majored in sociology at Bowdoin College and earned his master’s degree in cinema through the University of Chicago’s MAPH program. Josh has a background in American genre studies and the French and Japanese New Waves, with a specific focus on the intersection of film noir, the historical film, and other media that includes television, video games, and the graphic novel.

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