Review for The Far Country
I have this thought, that there comes a point in life where the brain’s capacity is reached, and new information tends to push old information out. I used to be able to put names to faces without a second thought, or more appropriately for this review, remembered every film I had watched. Not anymore. When Arrow Video solicited The Far Country for review, I perked up, in the mood for a classic Western. And when it features the team of director Anthony Mann, and star James Stewart, a team notable for Winchester 73, and Bend of the River, I requested a check disc before the echo died. After all, I certainly haven’t seen every film that they have made together, and I looked forward to discovering something new. A few seconds into the film, and I saw that little bell hanging from the saddle... If they had solicited the film as “the one with the bell on the saddle” I would have avoided that deflating feeling altogether, and instead requested the check disc knowing in advance that I was familiar with the film.
This is a two disc release, with two versions of the film, sort of. The Far Country was shot in the Academy ratio back in 1954, but this was when widescreen was the innovation that would tear people away from that new fangled television. The Far Country was shot in 4:3 but composed for widescreen, and just like the Back to the Future trilogy and A Life Less Ordinary, was matted down (black borders placed top and bottom) to a theatrical release format of 2.00:1. When released on DVD, The Far Country got a 1.85:1 widescreen release instead. This Blu-ray release offers you both, with the 1.85:1 version plus the extras on disc 1, and the original theatrical format on disc 2. I like my Westerns to be as widescreen as possible, and always opt for OAR, so for the purposes of this review, I watched the 2.00:1 version.
Jeff Webster isn’t one to trust others. He relies only on himself, and cares about just one other person, his friend and partner Ben. They have a plan to drive cattle north, to the Klondike and the Canadian gold rush, where hungry miners are getting tired of eating bear. But getting to their destination of Dawson means passing through the Alaskan town of Skagway, and there they run into the impediment of Judge Gannon. The crooked judge takes exception to Jeff’s cattle interrupting a hanging, and he confiscates the cows. He’s also established some self-serving rules regarding people crossing the border. Luckily Jeff has found a sponsor in the form of saloon owner Ronda Castle. She needs a gun to escort her to Dawson, where Jeff and Ben can stake a claim and make some serious money. But Judge Gannon has other ideas.
As mentioned, disc 1 has the film in 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p, and disc 2 has the film in 2.00:1 widescreen 1080p, and as the blurb states, these transfers are taken from a 4k restoration. The audio is in PCM 1.0 mono English form, with optional English subtitles. Age hasn’t been kind to this print; either that or the quality of film in 1954 took a nosedive that year. This is one of the rare times that I actually have fonder memories of watching this film on a 21” 4:3 CRT TV than I do having watched it in HD. Don’t expect crystal clear perfection from this print, or anything close.
I can’t fault the transfer. The film makes use of a lot of the disc real estate for the comparatively short 97 minute run time. There is no sign of compression, no sign of DNR, the image is stable and free of dirt and print damage, although not age, and there is a rich, whorl of film grain making the experience feel just like a cinema presentation. But the image is soft, excessively so, detail levels vary sporadically depending on the scene, there is a strange fringing effect with the colour as if they bleed into each other, and the colours seem off, as if one of the primaries has faded.
The discs boot to animated menus, and both discs repeat the audio commentary from Adrian Martin. I have to say that I found it one of those tracks that comment on what is happening on screen more than talking about the film and its production.
All of the video extras are on the first 1.85:1 disc.
American Frontiers: Anthony Mann at Universal lasts 33:06, and is in HD. This featurette looks at the partnership between Anthony Mann and James Stewart, looking at the films they made together, with an emphasis on The Far Country.
Mann of the West lasts 23:50 HD, and has Kim Newman appraising the Anthony Mann westerns.
The Theatrical Trailer lasts 2:18 HD
The Image Galleries contain Production Stills, Art Concepts, and Posters & Lobby Cards to click through.
The first print run of the release will also contain a 28-page booklet with an essay from Phillip Kemp, and a review of the film.
Not every western is going to be Winchester 73, although by starting off with that film, Anthony Mann and James Stewart sets a high bar that they would be unlikely to achieve again. The Far Country is no Winchester 73, but I also have to say that it doesn’t quite match Bend of the River either. The big issue is that it is shy on character development. There are no real arcs to the characters, and in some ways it feels more like a clichéd good guys versus bad guys flick, although with James Stewart in his dark and tormented phase, it’s more a bad guys versus ‘kind of bad’ guys movie.
In Winchester 73 his character’s motives defined the whole film, while in Bend of the River, there was that back story that gave the character depth and dimension, but in The Far Country, Jeff Webster is grouchy and antisocial because he’s just built that way. It’s a facade he persists in wearing right until the final scene of the movie when he has a Damascene conversion. It doesn’t quite ring true. It’s a similar fate for Ronda Castle, the ‘bad’ girl in the movie. She’s the saloon owner whose life follows a path of pure self interest, until that moment where it no longer does. It makes for a suitably operatic overtone to the film’s climax, but once again, it doesn’t ring true.
The rest of the characters are single note, and maintain a degree of consistency (except for Rube who goes from drunk to hard working member of the community, to authority figure, back to drunk over the course of the film). The villains are irredeemably villainous, the ornery ol’ coots are ornery, and there are plenty of them in this film besides Walter Brennan’s Ben. Of course there’s nothing wrong with stereotypical archetypes in a film, and they do certainly allow for the kind of running humour that balances the darkness in the main character.
Where The Far Country stands to succeed is on its story, and in this case the tale is certainly a gripping one. It also helps that this is set in locations that are rarely seen in Westerns. The action moves from Seattle to Alaska to Canada, as the characters chase the shiny lure of gold, and mountains, fir trees, and glaciers make an interesting change from the plains and deserts of the Wild West. A loner cowboy just wants to earn a living for himself and his best friend without getting tied down or forced to trust, but things get complicated when he runs into a crooked lawman. His first plan to make a quick profit from his cattle is snatched away from him, but the Gold Rush in the Klondike offers him another chance at some comparatively easy money. But the spectre of that crooked lawman haunts him wherever he goes. He can see the effect that the corruption has on the mining community in Dawson, but when it comes down to it, it’s finally revenge that motivates him to act rather than anything noble.
The Far Country is an entertaining film, the characters, while not as well thought out or rounded do hold the attention, the story works well, and the scenery is gorgeous, and the drama and action is balanced with a nice of level of humour. It’s just that it’s not as memorable or as classic a Western as something like Winchester 73. I do have my reservations about the source material that Arrow had to work with. This film may look better than it ever has on home video with this Blu-ray, but that is a comparative judgement. I have to say that I found the viewing experience a little dispiriting having seen so many classic and vintage films look much better in high definition. I wish I had a time machine to go back and see what this film looked like in the cinema in 1954. I suspect it would have been better than this.