“I don’t need help. I don’t need people. I can take care of me.” ~ James Stewart as Jeff Webster
This Alaskan Northwestern opens and it’s almost like we’ve missed something. Jeff Webster (James Stewart) rides into a town with two men and promptly gives them back their guns and dares them to draw on him. They relent and say they’ll be back for him. To my recollection, we never see them again or if we do it doesn’t matter because for all intent and purposes this little tiff sets up all we need to know about our main character.
James Stewart continues carving out a diverging path for his screen persona thanks in part to the work of Anthony Mann and screenwriter Borden Chase. We are also treated to late period Walter Brennan playing up his future Real McCoys persona constantly yammering away idly about everything. But he’s loyal and if Webster has anything close to a friend in the whole entire world it would be Ben. He’s a good buddy.
Soon the two cattlemen are Skagway bound but this is no Hope & Crosby Road Picture as they look to make bank on their choice beef. Already Webster is a wanted man and he conveniently is given berth to hide from his pursuers. It yields a rather risque character introduction as Jimmy Stewart gets some assistance from a lovely lady (Ruth Roman) who covers for him — hiding under her sheets — spurs and all.
His next biggest faux pas is breaking up a local hanging with his herd of cattle barreling through town past the flimsy scaffolding. As he has unwittingly made a mockery of justice, Webster soon finds himself brought to court. It just so happens that the local purveyor of law and order holds court with his gavel in the local saloon. Devious and rugged-faced Judge Gannon (John McIntyre) is both chief judge and executioner. He has the clout to snatch the stock away from the perpetrator for his minor offense which he proceeds to do right quick.
As an alternative Webster is hired on to ride point for the proprietress of the Skagway Castle. They’ve already been acquainted and Rhonda’s quite the businesswoman as it turns out. She leverages her allegiance with Gannon to set up outposts in the two largest outposts in the territory. Though Webster is no less opportunistic, using this chance to round up his cattle to drive them to Dawson City for a pretty penny.
More than anyone, the plucky and pouting young red-capped Renee gives Stewart a chance to be a tease with his iconic jocularity but he’s always more condescending toward her. He makes it painfully obvious that he’s not going to fall for her nor does he feel the need for any friends.
He’s the epitome of a Lone Wolf character. The stark majesty of the icy backdrop behind him is an impeccable extension of who he is and he seems very much in his element. He’s willing to traverse roads others will not and predicts an avalanche before it hits. All with calculated detachment. He doesn’t make a habit of worrying about others.
But Gannon will not let up and he looks to muscle his way into Dawson as well seeing as he already has a major stake in Skagway. The formerly tame territory gets wilder by the hour. This sanctioned hike in lawlessness calls for a response from the peacekeepers but any of the men subsequently sworn in as Marshall have little leverage against the Judge’s guns. Their best bet is to wait until real law and order comes. Until then Gannon keeps on confiscating their stakes.
The only man who can do anything to stop them isn’t about to make the town’s problems his own. He’s made a habit of not getting involved. But there comes a point where his hand is forced and there’s no way to separate the town’s affairs and his own agenda. He must act.
Jeff rides his steed down the main street for the final showdown which looks more like an ambush. They underestimate him. To his credit, Mann strips away any final notion of the heroic mythos of the frontier with a gunfight that finds itself in the muck and the mire under a porch. True, Dawson City gets their happy ending and a renewed reputation but the film resonates far more for its besmirched brand of tenacity than for any amount of heroism. James Stewart gave up being a stereotypical protagonist years before and it pays heavy dividends once again.