Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bend of the River

Bend of the River
seen online via YouTube

The notion of redemption is a powerful one. As human beings, we know we're imperfect; we know we mess things up more often than not, but we like to think it's possible that we can make up for that somehow. Christianity, of course, is based on the concept of redemption - a single act of selflessness that cancels out all the wrongs we've ever done. But are all sins created equal? Are there some things that simply can't be forgiven?

Forgiveness, naturally, is a key component in redemption. One of the messages in last year's Kinyarwanda is that forgiveness begins with oneself; acknowledging the wrong done and one's role in committing it. That might be the toughest step. I've written about my own struggles in this area before, and I know how difficult it can be to live with the guilt - as well as how uplifting the feeling of forgiveness can be.

Jimmy Stewart's character in Bend of the River faces a similar dilemma - whether or not the good he does in the present can make up for the bad he's done in the past, though I thought the movie didn't go as deeply into this as they could have. Stewart plays a 19th-century cowpoke leading a wagon train of settlers into Oregon, while contesting with Indians, unscrupulous businessmen, and bad men with hidden agendas of their own. He and a fellow traveler he meets on the way both have pasts they're trying to get away from, but this other guy's past is known and as a result, he's not completely trusted. Stewart's character's past is not known to the settlers, and he wonders what they'd do if they found out.

The movie's a little vague about what exactly Stewart did; the implication is that he was some sort of outlaw who may have done a lot of killing. (Hard to believe of a Jimmy Stewart character, I know!) And like I said, while it's a thread in the tapestry of the story, it's not a big one. Maybe I could've believed he had the capacity to kill if we saw him do it. Early on, we see him about to stab a man to death, but someone stops him. Later, he's hunting down the bad guys, but his actions are mostly implied, which sucks because this is a point where he needs to be a total badass in order to save the day and we don't really get to see it. Maybe it was due to the limitations on violence in Hollywood films back then.

Bend is one of eight films (five of them Westerns) Stewart made with director Anthony Mann, whom I first read about at Peter Bogdanovich's blog. I found it quite entertaining, despite the presence of none other than Stepin Fetchit in a small role. His character is a good guy and is more or less accepted by everyone around him, but that voice of his, and his generally servile attitude, just makes me cringe and feel ashamed. But that's another post.


  1. Stewart's past is left vague, but they do say that he was a "border raider." My impression was that he was a member of a guerrilla unit like Quantrill's Raiders or the Jayhawkers, both of which terrorized the Kansas-Missouri border during the Civil War.

  2. I've heard "Stepin Fetchit" used as a metaphor for ethnic stereotyping. It's impossible to watch some of these old movies without cringing. But then, today's graphic violence and casual sex would have been just as shocking in 1953. What is politically incorrect now was acceptable then, and vice versa.


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