A review of the Anthony Mann/James Stewart Western The Man from Laramie:
The fifth of Anthony Mann's five Westerns with Jimmy Stewart (and the last of their eight movies together), The Man from Laramie looks more and more like the best of the lot. (Hard to pick, since they're all exceptional.) Mann incorporates all his usual expertise at combining real landscapes with the emotional conflict of his characters, but this time it includes a more intricate plot, and in fact, a kind of murder mystery. (It harkens back to his earlier, psychological Western, The Furies.) Stewart stars as Will Lockhart, a man who makes his living delivering goods by wagon through hostile Apache territory. Upon arriving and dropping his latest load, he looks to fill up again to make the trip back more profitable. The local, lovely Barbara (Cathy O'Donnell) tells him about a place at which he can load up on salt for free, but in doing so, Lockhart angers the local cattle baron's family. His wagons burned, he must stay in town for a while, but the longer he does, the deeper he becomes entwined with the Waggomans: volatile, lunkheaded son Dave (Alex Nicol), stern, crafty father Alec (Donald Crisp), Dave's cousin, the sweet Barbara, and Barbara's fiancé, Vic (Arthur Kennedy), who works for Alec. Before long two murders are pinned on Lockhart, and someone has purchased and hidden a stockpile of repeating rifles to sell to the Apache. As always, Mann uses high and low ground to magnificent effect, but the difference here is the interiors, the Waggoman's office, and even Lockhart's jail cell are practically characters in themselves. Moreover, Mann handles the twisty plot with expert care; it could have been a Lang or Hitchcock film. We can only wonder if Mann and Stewart quit while they were ahead, or if even greater masterworks might have been in store.
The Man from Laramie
Mann's affinity for genre grit made his Westerns as edgy and sadistic as mainstream movies were allowed to be in 1955. The Man from Laramie manages to be simultaneously conventional and boldly unusual. On one hand, it is stacked with stock situations and characters that on paper sound pretty lame: The mysterious stranger come to town to settle the hash of friend and foe alike (Shane); the prim heroine; the Ponderosa-like monster ranch and its aging patriarch (Duel in the Sun, Giant, The Furies, The Big Country); and the plot device of (yawn) selling guns to the Indians (more oaters than you can throw a buffalo at). But Anthony Mann elevates the mythic elements with a visual flair that would serve him well in his later epics: El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire, even The Heroes of Telemark. Will Lockhart faces down the mounted, charging Alec Waggoman in a confrontation reminiscent of El Cid. In one of Mann's most brutal and traumatic scenes, a frantic, writhing Lockhart is held fast, his hand outstretched, so that the insane Dave Waggoman can shoot a hole through it.
A lot has been printed about classical allusions in Mann's films. Laramie reminds very strongly of King Lear mixed with Greek tragedy—the ill-fated inheritance, feuds and broken romances that stretch across decades. The proud patriarch goes literally blind after years of turning a blind eye to the shortcomings of his only heir, and cursed nightmares foretell the coming of a killer who will pull a dynasty down into the dust. That the film works so well with this classical baggage is a testament not only to Mann's skill but to the talent of writers Yordan & Burt and the fine actors who breathe life into what might have been a pretty unbelievable pack of characters. Stewart plays terrorized, neurotic anguish with a skill equal to the extremes found in Rear Window and Vertigo.
The Man from Laramie has its share of '50s conventions and attitudes. As in the rest of the Mann/Stewart films, the West is pictured as a grand frontier of limitless idealism, marred only by the aberrant actions of 'a few bad apples,' to borrow the flatly-stated moral that bogs down Bend of the River. Laramie is also no Broken Arrow; It has a rather retro idea of how to present native Americans. Lockhart doesn't disguise his contempt for the treacherous Indian who works in Barbara's general store. Dialogue establishes that the big landowner Waggoman bought his ranch from the Apache tribe, exposition clearly planted to undercut any possible justification for their unprovoked depredations. Likewise, the rightness of patriarchal authority is taken for granted. Spurned lover Kate Candady is ignored and insulted by Alec Waggoman for 4/5 of her lifetime, yet when he cries for help from his sickbed she responds with a subservience that would shame a dog: "He needs me!" The Barb's cowhands obey any order they're given by the Waggoman princes, no matter how wrong or sick-minded; it's a feudal simplification that the script never questions.
Comment: A retro idea of how to present Natives? It's true that The Man from Laramie doesn't give voice to or develop any sympathetic Native characters. But also doesn't hit us over the head with the Indians' or the white man's savagery. In short, it's a fair and balanced take on Indians, and better than most movies of the era.
Laramie's enlightened aspects
Note: The movie's title must refer to Laramie, Texas, not Laramie, Wyoming. Even though it's a fictional town, I believe Coronado is located in New Mexico. A New Mexico town wouldn't get its supplies from Wyoming and Colorado wasn't considered Apache territory.
But he's a criminal, so he arguably deserves his punishment. And he's the only person the Indians kill on-screen. Basically, there isn't a single case in which they've acted irrationally or "savagely." All their actions are human and understandable.
So...a retro portrayal? Compared to Broken Arrow, maybe. But compared to, say, Comanche Moon in 2008, it's a model of enlightenment.
Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.
Incidentally, James Stewart in The Man from Laramie or Winchester '73 is my kind of Western hero. Unlike John Wayne the Red River despot, he tries to avoid violence or talk his way out of it whenever he can. He fights only when he has to. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon or Alan Ladd in Shane, he's fundamentally a man of peace. But he seems to embody this attitude in every film, not just in one.
The best Indian movies
Winning through nonviolence
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