Everything is visceral in an Anthony Mann film. Character, morality, even friendship are not observed but felt through movement and also spacial relationships. The buddy relationship that anchors Bend of the River, the sleeper of Mann's four westerns with Stewart and playing Sunday and Monday at Film Forum's retrospective, is one of the most moving in Mann's oeuvre of man-love, and this bond begins with a rescue (Jimmy Stewart is a former raider trying to shake off his bandit ways who rescues opportunist Arthur Kennedy from a bind) so instinctual and physically in sync that it's almost sexual—a perfect fit. Some moral issues bubble up on the path out West, though, and this friendship is tested, but it's hard to shake a visceral link like that. Yet whatever doubts occur or however steadfast any connections seem, ideals are always trumped by explosive reflexes in times of crisis (which are the only true indicators of character in a Mann film).
While moral ambiguity is also the focus of Man of the West, and Jimmy Stewart's character in The Man from Laramie is similarly all about a righteous investigation into "just where do we bend?", in this film that moral ambiguity is less Epic than in those films—it's intimate and heartbreaking instead. This film lacks the unparalleled, breathtaking landscapes of The Man from Laramie, but Mann's signature low camera (which makes everything look monumental, from mountains to sleazy heavies who hog the whole frame) captures some interesting contrasts here: the edenic end-of-the-road vistas along the West Coast and also the ugly, chaotic goldminers' greed that's so foundational to that coast's character.