As “Canyon Passage” Turns 75, It’s the Perfect Time to Look Back on the Oregon-shot Western, One of the Best Forgotten Films of Its Genre

“This movie is so unique,” says film historian and Western expert Toby Roan. “It’s one of those I’m blown away every time I put it on.”

Rarely the domain of the wild bandit or granite lawman, the Oregon Western has historically contemplated self-determination. From Meek’s Cutoff (2011) to Bend of the River (1952), they’re a thoughtful cinematic breed, and that’s never more true than in Canyon Passage—a 1946 Technicolor frontier film from Jacques Tourneur—considered one of the best forgotten Westerns of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

“This movie is so unique,” says film historian and Western expert Toby Roan. “It’s one of those I’m blown away every time I put it on.”

Filmed in the Diamond Lake area of the Umpqua National Forest and released 75 years ago this summer, Canyon Passage was somewhat erroneously marketed as the first feature shot in Oregon. (Silent classics like City Girl and The General would beg to differ.) But you can see why local press like the Medford Mail Tribune pushed such a claim in 1946. In an era when popular Westerns were churned out on a veritable assembly line, Canyon Passage is quintessentially Oregonian, both in spirit and in its immersive embrace of the landscape—from Crater Lake to Mount Thielsen.

“There are lots of movies about carving a place out of the wilderness, but not many where [the characters] are still in the middle of the wilderness like that,” says Roan, author of A Million Feet of Film: The Making of One-Eyed Jacks.

The nature near Bend and Medford plays majestic host to nearly a dozen crisscrossing characters with a home base in 1856 Jacksonville. Adapted from Oregon paperback scribe Ernest Haycox’s 1945 serial, the script is busy, wise and charming as almost every figure—freight mover Logan (Dana Andrews), conflicted bride-to-be Lucy (Susan Hayward), dodgy banker (Brian Donlevy)—has settled into an unsustainable predicament of business or love. Down the line, performances from world-beating character actor Ward Bond, a young Lloyd Bridges, Tin Pan Alley composer Hoagy Carmichael, and Yakima actor and opera singer Chief Yowlachie are uniformly lived in and intriguing, as we see how village-building precariously ebbs and flows with frontier Oregonians’ best intentions and worst impulses.

With Paris-born Tourneur directing both his first Western and first color film, following cult horror classics Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, the focus on Jacksonville as an ecosystem of free women and compromised men (and Hoagy Carmichael wandering around with his mandolin) politely subverts the Western as a hypermasculine, individualist fantasia.

Roan points out how even the widened cinematography, placing ‘40s stars like Andrews and Hayward as ambiguous, interdependent figures amid the landscape, was a rare visual language in an era when studios like Universal all but demanded dramatic close-ups.

“[Tourneur] just hangs back,” he explains. “When you’re making a movie about a community, the close-up takes you away. Let’s look at everybody as a group.”

Though it broke Portland box office records in 1946 and registered as a sizable hit, Canyon Passage faded into obscurity like many Westerns absent generationally transcendent film stars. But with companies like Kino Lorber, which hired Roan to record the commentary on its recent Blu-ray release, and cinephiles gradually reclaiming Tourneur as a major auteur of the ‘50s, you need only hop on a forum like Letterboxd to find new fans struck by Canyon Passage’s complex character development and visual brilliance. If online film fandom counts for nothing, Martin Scorsese called Canyon Passage “one of the most exquisite and mysterious examples of the Western genre ever made.”

For modern audiences, its appeal may well be in attempting to intelligently straddle Western paradoxes. Its lead characters are “stuck on this Oregon,” seeking to belong in the Northwest yet simultaneously chasing more freedom. Many know they’re colonial interlopers yet hope for peace on a canvas where collectivism and individualism shift and collide at all angles.

“A man can choose his own gods,” Logan quips in the film’s opening moments. He’s about to depart muddy, crowded Portland and take to southward trails where his shipping work is its own reward. It’s a heady line for a witty cowboy, winking at the very idea of frontier faith and reinvention. If he’s wrong about this Oregon, he’ll just start over—in the next Jacksonville, on a new trail, with a new god.

SEE IT: Rent Canyon Passage at Movie Madness, 4320 SE Belmont St., 503-234-4363, moviemadness.org.