Plot: McLyntock (James Stewart) has a past that he wishes he could change, but he plans to make things right moving forward and he agrees to lead a caravan to greener pastures. Once the caravan arrives, McLyntock will settle down and become a farmer, a much more serene lifestyle than his years as a raider. At one of the caravan’s stops, he finds himself in the middle of a lynching, as a band of angry riders is about to execute Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy). McLyntock intervenes and Cole joins the caravan, leading to a quick bond between the two, as Cole was also a raider and is looking for a fresh start. The group survives an Indian assault, but runs into real problems in Portland, where the supplies they ordered are being denied, as prices in the area have gone up. As the caravan needs those resources to make the trek, McLyntock leads a charge to claim them, one way or another.
Entertainment Value: This is a classic western, one with a good narrative, interesting characters, beautiful visuals, and a unique, memorable performance from screen legend James Stewart. I don’t think Bend of the River is as stylish or action packed as some of its peers, but it has genuine heart and tells a grounded, but complex story, one that keeps your attention throughout. The western genre is a diverse one, but a good amount of the stories tend to center on white hat vs. black hat, while Bend of the River refuses to keep things that simple. The characters here are believable and flawed, so they have good and bad traits, regardless of their place in the narrative. The redeemed man is a common theme in western cinema, but this movie puts some new twists on the concept and the result is remarkable. The writing allows for skilled, layered development and internal depth within the characters, fueled by regret, ambition, longing, and more, always in a natural, effective fashion. There is some action, as you’d expect, but it again feels different than its peers, as Bend of the River focuses on the reasons for and consequences of the violence, rather than just trying to depict stylish shootouts for the sake of the violence. I recommend this one to even casual western fans, but anyone who appreciates well written, layered stories with rich characters and a great cast should give this a look.
In a career loaded with memorable, excellent performances, James Stewart’s work here is still strong enough to stand one as one of his best efforts. This is of course due in large part to Stewart’s colossal talent and ability to make the most of any role, but here he is also given depth and development of high order to work with. He is able to convey the internal conflict so well and whenever his character is presented a crossroads, it carries weight and impact. This is especially true toward a few points close to the finale, but throughout the movie he makes sure the role feels layered and believable, which elevates the entire picture. But Stewart isn’t the lone standout in the ensemble, as Julie Adams is also quite good here and Arthur Kennedy also shines, with his scenes shared with Stewart as highlights. In short, the cast is rock solid from top to bottom and even the smaller roles are well played. The cast also includes Rock Hudson, Royal Dano, Harry Morgan, and Jack Lambert.