Jimmy Stewart Tapped into the Nastiness of the Post-War Western with The Naked Spur

Movies Features Anthony Mann
Jimmy Stewart Tapped into the Nastiness of the Post-War Western with The Naked Spur

Deep in the Rocky Mountains, a lone horseman dismounts. We get a tight shot of his hip and hand, pulling the six-shooter from its holster and cocking the hammer before he disappears into the wilderness. He finds the camp of a prospector, sneaking through the brush before disarming him. He offers the man $20 to help him find someone wanted dead or alive for a murder all the way back in Kansas. He shows the prospector a wanted poster. He seems to be a law man, a bitterly determined one. The prospector thinks to himself, well, it’s guaranteed money. And after all, it’s Jimmy Stewart offering it—why not trust him?

By February of 1953, when The Naked Spur released, Stewart and director Anthony Mann had cultivated a new persona for the actor on a frontier that wasn’t anywhere near his type in the days of him being an all-American boy. But like most things in American life, the war changed everything. Almost every life had been upended in some way, with hundreds of thousands coming back with physical scars, and millions more with invisible ones. It was taboo at the time; John Huston’s documentary about the psychological trauma of returning veterans, Let There Be Light, was banned by the Army for being a potential detriment to recruitment in the new Cold War that was immediately flaring up.

A couple of big films were accepted for their attempts examining a nation reunited with their veterans, most notably William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, which swept the 1947 Academy Awards. Largely, though, the post-traumatic stress that veterans carried with them from the war was swept under the current of a booming economy and a propaganda market trying to frame American-style capitalism as the ideology of all things good in its dualistic war with Soviet communism. In reality, it was more complicated, but confronting this had to be couched in metaphor, even if it was an obvious one. And what we now think of as an archaic genre obsessed with its own past was actually the best thing suited to deal with contemporary social crises—something as uniquely American as global capitalism and Jimmy Stewart: the Western.

It took some time for Mann to get proper recognition in his home country, but the French were on the ball: Jacques Rivette, at the time a critic at Cahiers du Cinéma, hailed Mann as one of the four great directors to emerge out of post-war America, and André Bazin said that, “Anyone who wants to know what a real western is, and the qualities it presupposes in a director, has to have seen” Mann’s films, of which he calls The Naked Spur “the finest of all.” A very big send-up to a director who spent much of the ‘40s making B-picture crime films, before entering the genre in 1950. That year alone he made three Westerns, one of which, Winchester ‘73, was his first collaboration with Stewart and would begin a career-defining (and for Stewart, redefining) partnership.

Stewart, like so much of Hollywood, went in on the wartime mobilization. Stars were doing USO tours, some of them even signing up for branches of service, and behind-the-camera talent was being commanded by the War Department’s Colonel Frank Capra. But while most celebrities were used for photo ops, Stewart was worried that his status would keep him off the front lines. Having a lifelong love of flying, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and would end up flying 20 combat missions over Germany and lead multiple squadrons of B-24 bombers by the war’s end. He was in the thick of it, and when peacetime arrived, he didn’t know how he’d be able to go back to acting. The polite, charming young man who won an Oscar in 1941 for the screwball comedy The Philadelphia Story was now a hardened war veteran—Stewart’s all-American boy image had in fact adapted to the times, but in a darker way than the mainstream culture wanted to explore. Capra was able to get Stewart to come back to the public world with him for It’s a Wonderful Life, and while George Bailey didn’t serve in the war, it’s easy to see how the disillusionment he’s left with after so much sacrifice could’ve resonated with those still trying to adjust back to civilian life. And while Capra’s conclusion may be saccharine or sentimental, it first has to go through the depths of a man’s broken spirit. And that is where Stewart will return to, time and time again, with Mann.

At first Howard Kemp (Stewart) appears to be a lawman, at least to the gullible prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell). He doesn’t so easily fool Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), a recently dishonorably discharged cavalry captain who notices that the wanted poster Kemp is toting around has the bottom torn off, where the bounty should be—he knows there’s money in this. The bandit is holed up on a cliff, and is tumbling boulders down the side while pinning them with gunfire. They have to sneak around the back and try to scale the thing. Kemp loses his grip and the rope burns his hands, but Roy is more successful at getting up. He finds the wanted man lying there with his back still towards the front: There is Ben Vandergoat (Robert Ryan), the man with a $5000 bounty on his head. Roy’s successful ambush falls apart when he too is attacked from behind, this time by a young woman. Lina Patch (Janet Leigh) might be Vandergoat’s girl, or maybe she’s just following along because she doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Once Kemp and Tate finally make it up the cliff, the fight is over. They have their prisoners, and we have our party for the dubious journey along the mountains. There’s an extremely loose thread constantly being knifed at by Vandergoat that’s holding the captors together, careful to watch for a double cross that’ll lead to fewer men getting more share of the bounty.

“He’s not a man, he’s a sack of money!” Roy exclaims. It’s hard to see how blood can run as anything but cold when men are reduced to nothing more than literal capital. Of course, the key word here is “reduced.” Mann’s films, like so many Westerns of the time, are about descent, about people who’ve been torn apart by a violent culture in a violent landscape, and now all they have left is that violence. And while violence is a paramount concern to the genre all the way from the beginning, Mann differs in the way he examines the stain of violence, and the possibility of it being washed out. His odysseys, while taking place in a visceral, punishing backdrop, are psychological journeys, ones where there are no clear-cut heroes and villains, no “white hats” or “black hats” (although, it is a common misconception that this was ever really a true trope within the genre); they are voyages where a man battles through his scarred mind, following obsession but somehow, someway, finding humanity again.

The Naked Spur is the most distilled of Mann’s Westerns. It is the film where every character, every detail is a reflection of Kemp’s own internal struggle—the fight for control, for possession, or even the mountain itself—and it is the film that most triumphantly shows that spark of humanity. That pilot light within the broken man, brought back to a glorious flame.

Kemp is shot through the leg about midway through the film. When they notice they’re being tailed by a band of Blackfeet, they realize that they must be after Roy, and that his story about a love affair with a chief’s daughter may’ve been a bit darker of a story than he let on. Roy wants to ambush him. They won’t help and cut him loose—only to find out that Roy posted up further along the trail and forced them into a fight to save his own skin.

Kemp’s wound drags the whole party down and forces them to make camp. Overnight, Kemp thrashes around in fever dreams. The other men don’t know what to do except have Lina try to take care of him. When he asks why she would help him she tells him with contempt, “I would’ve done it for a dog.” Kemp can’t square why a girl like Lina would hang around a guy like Vandergoat, a man he paints as cruel, duplicitous and run totally by greed and selfishness (as Vandergoat points out with a smirk, those accusations sound a lot like Kemp himself). Lina sees a goodness in him, though, a desire to make his way in the world cleanly—maybe go off to California and start a ranch. Kemp can’t believe this. He can’t see Vandergoat having the caring required to tend to land, to help the sick cows during the winter, to help things grow. But as he’s talking, the facade slips a bit. Out of the gruffness, we start to hear that soft Jimmy Stewart voice we all know and love. The movie’s theme starts to play for the first time, and it sounds as familiar as that soft voice: It’s an aching string rendition of “Beautiful Dreamer.”

There is still a man with a dream down there, although the broken man on the surface can see his only way of achieving it is through a kind of stealing. He had a ranch once, but an ex-wife cheated him and sold it, and now the only way back to that more innocent past is apparently through stealing another man’s life and selling it for cash. Lina doesn’t seem to believe this, though. In fact, she doesn’t seem to believe in this violence at all, even when she witnesses it. She sees through the vengeance and the greed. Much of the Western genre posits a kind of regeneration through violence, a sort of necessary evil that was used to “tame” the land the country was built on (which, historically, cannot be denied—it was cruel, genocidal violence that built the United States as we understand it today), but Mann isn’t interest in the past, he’s interested in the present, and maybe even the future. Most surprising of all, he offers a kind of optimistic outlook: That people, if they are willing to fight it, can break the nature that’s been forced upon them. Lina, in eventually coming to believe that there is a good man somewhere inside Kemp, gives Kemp the same faith in himself—in his ability not to forget his past, but overcome it. It’s a story not about the regeneration of the land, but of the people on it. It’s a film about the exterior forces that get us to turn on each other, and how in our communal belief, we can overcome.

Alex Lei is a writer and filmmaker. Born in Portland, OR, he got a BA in film from Montana State University, and after working in politics for a time relocated to Baltimore. He spends his days working behind bar, endlessly editing old projects, researching new ones, and occasionally putting out writing. Words can usually be found at Frameland, Splice Today, his newsletter CompCin for longer-form writing, and Twitter for things that are barely written at all.

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