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It would be idiocy to say that Mann and Stewart made these movies. The pictures had stories and dialogue, fashioned by top screenwriters. Borden Chase wrote Winchester '73, Bend of the River and The Far Country. Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom (who later dreamed up those gentleman-rogue TV series Have Gun Will Travel and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) created the five-character chamber play The Naked Spur. Reginald Rose, best known for the TV show, play and film Twelve Angry Men, wrote the coruscating Mann-Gary Cooper western Man of the West. And Mann's old buddy Philip Yordan had his name on The Man from Laramie and The Last Frontier, as well as Mann films in the noir genre (The Black Book) and epic cycle (El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire).
On screen, Stewart was front and center for most of the major Mann westerns, but filling out the mural was an informal repertory company, lending color and texture to the depiction of the Old West. Often these secondary players assumed similar roles from film to film; so, even if the hero's motives were somewhat baffling, audiences could get their bearings by spotting the supporting players. Readers who grew up on movies of the '50s and '60s may not recognize the names of these actors, but if we showed you their mug shots you could finger them in a second.
Consider Jay C. Flippen, who appeared in Winchester '73, Bend in the River, Thunder Bay, The Country Country and Strategic Air Command. With a gift for bombast and the twinkle of chicanery in his eye, Flippen was the genial spirit of the pioneering American entrepreneur. In Thunder Bay he's the old wildcatter who takes a chance on Stewart's scheme to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. And in Bend of the River he leads his flock of settlers into the West to create a garden out of the wilderness. "It's what I've always dreamed about, Glyn," he rhapsodizes to Stewart. "A new country where we can make things grow... In a few years we'll bring fruit to the world such as the eyes of man has never seen." In Flippen's gaze you can see the 19th century turn into the 20th.
John McIntire (Winchester '73, The Far Country, The Tin Star) was often the sardonic version of Flippen: a homespun hard case who had become the the boss or patriarch of a lawless territory, and who enjoys meting out injustice. "I'm gonna like you," he tells Stewart when they first meet in The Far Country. "I'm gonna kill you, but I'm gonna like you."
Harry Morgan (Bend in the River, The Glenn Miller Story, Thunder Bay, The Far Country, Strategic Air Command, Cimarron) the skeptical runt, with a weakness for the sort of bravado he could rarely back up. In The Far Country he snaps at Stewart, "The law says you can't get away with this," and Stewart asks, "What law?" Royal Dano (Bend in the River, The Far Country, Man of the West, Cimarron) played the malcontent, tall and taciturn in Man of the West he's literally mute until he suffers a very vocal death who's seen enough of people to expect the worst of them. "Where there's gold there's stealin'," Dano mutters in The Far Country, "and where there's stealin' there's killin'."
Other reliables included Chubby Johnson (Bend in the River, The Far Country), the Gabby Hayes-like grizzled prospector, and Robert J. Wilke (The Far Country, Man of the West), whose mean attitude scarred a face that usually got pushed in; and those magnificent troglodytes Jack Elam (The Far Country, The Man from Laramie) and Jack Lambert (Border Incident, Bend of the River). Outside the core westerns, but a Mann favorite, was Charles McGraw (T-Men, Reign of Terror, Border Incident, Side Street, Cimarron), whose magnificent granite features and sturdy, short frame made him perfect as the enforcer for a gangleader or trail boss.
You'll note there are no actresses in this rogue's gallery. That's because, even in Mann westerns, women were stuck in two traditional roles: the virgin and the whore. The virgin, like Julie Adams in Bend of the River, was a prize for men to fight over, like a sack of gold or a parcel of land. Her job was to lure the hero into protecting her during the climactic fight, during which she stands by, her hand to her mouth, her feet glued to the floor, while he gets beat up. As the representative of genteel civilization, she needs to be instructed in the code of barbarism. "I know ya ain't never seen a man killed close up," killer Robert Ryan tells winsome Janet Leigh in The Naked Spur. "Well, that'll pass. Day after tomorrow it'll be just like a story you once heard." That's how hearts harden in the West: by pretending the evil one committed was part of some epic saga.
The whore Ruth Roman, say, in The Far Country was a woman who strutted her sexuality (read: independence) rather than hiding it, and who talked to a man like a man. After saving Stewart from men who would arrest or kill him," Roman coos, "Say thanks." Stewart drawls, "That's a term I seldom use." They could have a kinship of self-reliance; they could have similar histories. (Roman: "I trusted a man once." Stewart: "Funny coincidence. I trusted a woman.") But a woman could not dominate a western; she could only inhabit it. The major rivalries, and partnerships, were all-male.