Fri 18 Apr 2014
BILL GULICK – Bend of the Snake. Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, 1950. Paperback reprints: Bantam #906, 1951; Paperback Library, 1968.
BEND OF THE RIVER. Universal, 1952. James Stewart, Julia Adams, Arthur Kennedy, Rock Hudson, Jay C. Flippen, Chubby Johnson, Stepin Fetchit, Harry Morgan Jack Lambert, Royal Dano, Frances Bavier. Screenplay by Borden Chase. Directed by Anthony Mann.
Bill Gulick’s first novel, Bend of the Snake, doesn’t seem like anything special to me, but it got snatched up immediately by the movies, and then discarded — of which more later.
Bend rides out slowly at first, with Scott Burton summoned to help out an old friend in a foundering business deal. Seems his buddy Emerson Cole is trying to break up a local monopoly in the Oregon territory and needs Burton’s help — understandable since Burton is that stock figure of Western Fiction: an honest man who can’t be beaten with guns or fists.
Gulick never tells us just what the bond is that makes Burton so willing to come to Cole’s assistance, but it quickly becomes apparent that Cole has neither the spine nor the ethics of his good buddy, character traits which lead the story into murder and a fairly well-handled investigation when a bookish youngster turns amateur sleuth.
For the most part though, this is pretty standard stuff, with Burton breaking the local robber baron by getting a load of goods to market past his hired guns, then beating down further attempts at ambush, arson and general mayhem.
Gulick creates an effective cast of salt-of-the-earth settlers and a crusty riverboat captain to give the tale a fine, spirited background, but plot-wise this is no different than a hundred others.
This was filmed, sort of, as Bend of the River, and when it came out Gulick ran an ad complaining that the only things they used from his book were the first three words of the title. Whereupon screenwriter Borden Chase observed wryly that he should have waited to see if the movie was a hit before distancing himself from it.
In fact, Bend of the River (the second teaming of director Anthony Mann and star Jimmy Stewart) was a big hit, and deservedly so. It is in fact, probably the most enjoyable of Mann’s westerns and the most satisfying of Stewart’s.
Just to be strictly accurate, I should note that Borden Chase did incorporate a few elements from Gulick’s book besides the first three words of the title: Emerson Cole is still a shifty character (though considerably more ballsy as played by Arthur Kennedy) and there’s still a helpful steamboat captain and something about getting a wagon load of goods past considerable obstacles, but the rest is pure Borden Chase, and it’s a theme he’d return to again: a man of principle (Jimmy Stewart, natch, the character re-named Glyn Mclyntock) allied with a helpful but not entirely trustworthy partner (Arthur Kennedy in a role he’d also return to again) involved in a deadly undertaking that is part thrill-a-minute adventure and part spiritual odyssey as Stewart/Mclyntock seeks to redeem himself from his past.
Mann seemed particularly attuned to this sort of thing and he evokes it here with speed and energy but without the angst that intensifies his later films: The Naked Spur (’53) and Man of the West (’58) may be more profound, but Bend of the River is more fun, as Stewart and Kennedy brave marauding Indians, crooked speculators, hired guns and mutinous miners (Morgan, Lambert and Dano at their best/worst) on their way to a confrontation that seems all the more satisfying because we know it’s coming.
I should also add that Universal had Chase write in a part for a rising young newcomer on the lot, Rock Hudson, who can be glimpsed in the Mann/Stewart Winchester ’73 (1950). Chase wrote him in but then apparently had no idea what to do with him as Hudson drops out of the action at a crucial moment and only reappears when it seems safe to do so.