From the right angle and distance, Mount Hood is cartoonish in its beauty—a near-perfect equilateral triangle with a zigzag for the snow line, the kind of mountain a child might sketch. But our local peak has perhaps never been portrayed so innocently as when Jimmy Stewart refers to it as "that tall fella with the white hair" in 1952's Bend of the River.
In that early scene of the Anthony Mann-directed Western, set to screen Dec. 9 at Hollywood Theatre, Stewart stars as a trail guide named McLyntock trying to persuade the pioneers in his charge to make the trek to Portland by going around Mount Hood, not over it—stellar guide work, by the way. As was the acting legend's custom, Stewart plays a morally upright man in Bend of the River, but one with a violent past liable to be unearthed by the gunfighters and oligarchs he encounters on his quest for idyllic Oregon farmland.
The state's topography is more than a trivial backdrop. The "tall fella" looms purposefully scene after scene until McLyntock and company find themselves navigating Hood's harsh rock face and our would-be hero bares his animal anger.
That moment is one of the film's last destinations physically and emotionally, but you can trace the escalation of performances from Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Julie Adams and Rock Hudson throughout based on where their characters are positioned in the Pacific Northwest wilderness. A scene in which our heroes steam around the corner of Washington's Cape Horn is jubilant with momentum. A tense sequence in the shadow of Rooster Rock serves as a prelude to higher hardship on Mount Hood. And a hazardous wagon race across the Sandy River is employed as a biblical final obstacle to the promised land.
Visual storytelling of this kind makes director Mann a distinctive figure in mid-20th-century American cinema, according to film historian and Wesleyan University Film Studies professor Jeanine Basinger.
"He's a really fantastic director and always tries to unite landscape with character," says Basinger, who penned the first major book of film criticism on Mann. "Bend of the River is a film about changing direction, and the entire plot structure is based on the idea of duality."
Basinger considers Mann a pioneer of formalism in Westerns as well as one of the first Hollywood storytellers to complicate the jingoist heroics of the John Wayne archetype. Bend of the River, the second of Mann's eight collaborations with Jimmy Stewart, also marks a turning point in the career of the star of It's a Wonderful Life.
"He's the Capra Stewart, then the Mann Stewart and then the Hitchcock Stewart," Basinger says. "All have a kind of hysterical inner quality to them, but when he moved into these Westerns, he became a different kind of leading man, more mature and complex."
While Bend of the River is saddled with a handful of dated Hollywood tropes that may not sit right with modern audiences—Native Americans as crude antagonists, a minstrel-esque black character and phony-looking violence—there's a moral aspiration running through this work that feels astute and uncommon.
For one, the righteous end goal in Bend of the River pertains more to community values than to a lone man with a gun. Look no further than the brief role 1866 Portland plays in the film. A hub of opportunity and promise for the Oregon Trailers at first blush, the boomtown devolves into an unrecognizable pit of price gouging and class division once gold is discovered nearby. Here lies the insightfulness of a Western that may appear formulaic on the surface: The frontier is an American dream just barely outpacing the American reality the settlers are fleeing. They're looking for refuge from the very wave that brought them.
SEE IT: Bend of the River screens at Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., hollywoodtheatre.org, on Sunday, Dec. 9. 6:30 pm. $7-$9.