Anthony Mann sets the frontier bariolage early, a swish-pan segues from resplendent landscape to grimacing face at the noose. The wagon-train guide (James Stewart) saves a fellow wanderer (Arthur Kennedy) from a lynch mob, the two swap nomad-outsider philosophies: "Still following that star?" "Better than having a man with a star following you." Theyíre both former Missouri border raiders, and their skills are amply displayed during a nighttime Indian attack. (The camera lays low and recedes tersely as Stewart crawls through bushes and a stream of water, five braves sharpen their arrows somewhere beyond the frame.) Oregon is luxuriantly envisioned as the distance between the agricultural settlement sprouting in the wilderness and nascent Portland, which grows tainted by gold fever; the delivery of supplies from one to the other lays out the itinerary. Mannís appreciation of striking scenery ("some of the finest country God ever put on the face of this planet") extends from the raging waterfall by the settlersí commune to the glow of red and yellow Chinese lanterns at the dockside hoedown. Against such splendors, as always, lie the elusiveness of civilization, the flux of alliances, and the purgative wrestling of warriors. The benevolent patriarch (Jay C. Flippen) insists on rigid moral codes, something about "rotten apples" never being able to change, but this is a film about reform and duality, where heroes pull guns on unarmed scoundrels ("What law?") and cravats cloak the rope burn around the leading manís neck. Double-crossed at the crumby foot of an icy mountain, Stewart unsheathes his seething obsessive side: "Youíll be seeing me..." Stewart and Kennedy duke it out in the river -- water both purifies men and wolfs them down -- yet in the end the one best suited for Mannís New World may be the gambler (Rock Hudson) who can reach for pistol and charm with equal skill. With Julia Adams, Lori Nelson, Chubby Johnson, Stepin Fetchit, Harry Morgan, Howard Petrie, Frances Bavier, Jack Lambert, and Royal Dano.
--- Fernando F. Croce