The Far Country Blu-ray Review
Jeff Webster (Jimmy Stewart) and his sidekick, Ben Tatum (Walter Brennen), are stoic adventurers driving cattle to market from Wyoming to Canada when they come to logger heads with a corrupt judge (John McIntire) and his henchmen. Meanwhile, a sultry saloon keeper (Ruth Romain) falls for Webster and teams up with him to take on the errant lawman. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Director Anthony Mann made a name for himself as a director of crime noir during the ‘40s, eventually bringing that darkness to a series of revisionist westerns. As a subgenre, the revisionist westerns set out to deconstruct the Hollywood myth of the American West, which was so heavily perpetuated that it had become the truth in the minds of filmgoers the world over. Decades of market saturation had left the genre stale and there was little sign of westerns going the way of the dodo as their low production costs made it easy for studios to switch over to television in the 1950s. Arguably, his best and most influential western was The Furies (1950), which was one of the more groundbreaking of ten westerns starring femme fatale queen Barbara Stanwyck, but he also attempted to bend expectations with movies like The Tin Star (1957) and Devil's Doorway (1950), which approaches familiar post-war tropes from a Native American point of view (unfortunately, starring white man Robert Taylor).
The Far Country (1954) is, in comparison, a bit of a throwback. It takes a somewhat unorthodox approach to the tropes and is more openly romantic than Mann’s gutsier movies, but is closer in style and substance to the standard issue westerns that existed alongside grittier revisionist westerns during the 1950s and ‘60s, like John Farrow’s Hondo (1953), Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959), or George Stevens’ Giant (1956). These films were more “modern” than “deconstructionist.” While the true revisionist westerns survive as landmark cinema, movies like The Far Country may be a more accurate portrayal of pop culture tastes during the era. It’s smart enough to recognize clichés, so as not to seem corny to increasingly sophisticated audiences, and was able to compete with television westerns thanks to its A-level cast, fronted by James Stewart, and expansive, lush Technicolor photography. Like those other westerns, it all feels a bit old-fashioned and by-the-numbers. Still, even though its messages aren’t shrouded in much moral ambiguity, it balances comedy and tragedy very nicely and, like The Furies, its story hinges in part on the whims of a strong-willed woman, played here by Ruth Romain. It’s absolutely not a feminist western, but it treats its small female cast well, including Romain and Corinne Calvet as comic relief, and Stewart’s conscience throughout the film. Those Canadian mountains sure are pretty, too.
Stewart’s westerns are almost always kind of subversive, simply because his brand of humble heroism doesn’t match the typical Wild West protagonist. In its most saturated heyday, the genre tended to prefer stoic macho men or grinning swashbucklers and Stewart was certainly neither (at least I’ve never bought him as such). In fact, his acting style was so ill-fitting that he inevitably worked best while appearing in genuinely antithetical or otherwise unique westerns, like John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford’s greatest revisionist movie, 1962) or George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again (Stewart’s first western, 1939). He and Mann made a total of six westerns together, including Winchester '73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Last Frontier (aka: Savage Wilderness, 1955), and The Man from Laramie (1955). Between the genuine revisionism of Winchester ‘73 and The Man from Laramie, they sort of built an insular subgenre of Technicolor Jimmy Stewart nature westerns – at least that’s what I’ve gathered, having seen two of the four movies in question (the extras on this disc set up more extensive patterns between the director and actor’s collaborations).
As far as I can tell, The Far Country has only been released on North American DVD once, as part of Universal’s Western Collection series. It was a bad disc and cropped to 1.33:1 (open-matte, not pan-and-scan). Mann and Stewart’s fanbase were forced to import anamorphic 1.85:1 discs from Europe, strangely enough, also distributed by Universal. I can’t find any evidence of HD television airings, so, assuming that is accurate, this represents the film’s Blu-ray and high-definition debut. Arrow’s brand new restoration was taken from the original 35mm negative, which was scanned in 4K at NBC/Universal and graded in London, and the results are presented in 1080p video. There are questions as to the most accurate aspect ratio, so the studio split the difference and included both 1.85:1 and 2.00:1 transfers, each on their own disc. Imdb.com specs list 2.00:1 as the intended ratio, but, comparing the two, I’m partial to the 1.85:1 version, so that was the one I watched for the feature review and opted to only sample the 2.00:1 transfer. I have included one comparison slider to help verify that the image quality is otherwise identical.
Mann and cinematographer William H. Daniels shot the film in 35mm and Technicolor, though specs don’t specify if it was three-strip or not. The occasional fuzziness, edge blooming, and somewhat uncanny color qualities are, for the most part, in keeping with what we’d expect from a film of this age, especially one made with Technicolor processes and not shot using large-format 65/70mm. Other artifacts are also typical, such as the difference in sharpness/clarity between the scenes shot on set and the scenes shot out in the elements. The vividness of the color is the transfer’s greatest strength – even during the pale and dim day-for-night sequences – while the soft edges and smudgy grain qualities are a bit disappointing. But, again, these and even the slight offset of some blues (likely the result of misaligned strips in the original negative print) are expected. My only other note is that I caught a few missing frames during the first sequence in the saloon.
The original mono audio was remastered from the optical negatives and is presented in uncompressed, LPCM 1.0 audio. This isn’t a particularly fancy track, but the dynamic range is decent for a mono mix. Dialogue is clear, to the point that it overwhelms other aural elements. The noise reduction is even-handed enough to only occasionally cut out sound effects when people are speaking and the soundfloor is low without hissing or crackling. There is no composer credit, but imdb.com lists four separate artists under the “music by” category: Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner, and Herman Stein. The score does seem a bit on the cobbled side, but sounds rich and loud when given the chance.
Commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin – An Arrow exclusive commentary from the Australlia-based critic. This packed track follows the typical expert/academic model that divides its time between screen-specific discussion and the wider context/history of the film and its players. Martin loses a little time describing on-screen action, but, on the whole, his work and preparation is very impressive.
American Frontiers: Anthony Mann at Universal (33:06, HD) – A new documentary featurette with Mann biographer Alan K. Rode, western author C. Courtney Joyner, script supervisor Michael Preece, and critics Michael Schlesinger & Rob Word. It traces the director’s work in big budget westerns (for Universal, naturally), collaborations with Stewart, and how the two men propped each other up during a tumultuous period in their careers.
Mann of the West (23:50, HD) – A new appraisal of the film and Mann’s other westerns by critic and author of Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s (Proteus Books, 1985/1988/2011), Kim Newman. The majority of the discussion is put on The Far Country, which Newman compares to other Stewart movies, but the rest of the series is also covered.
2.00:1 version of the film
Commentary with Adrian Martin
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab. Note that there will be some JPG compression.