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Dept. of Similarity
THE SINCEREST FORM
By TOM SOTER
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but some people can get carried away.
This came to mind the other day when I was watching an old Anthony Mann western. Now, non-film buffs may not have heard of Mann, but he was a director who became well known and successful in the 1950s for directing a series of psychologically complex "noir westerns," most of them starring Jimmy Stewart. Stewart had made his name for himself in the 1930s and early 1940s by playing, shy, "aw shucks" boy-next-door types, as charming as they were earnest: the classic example being the idealistic young senator, Jefferson Smith, who takes on Washington in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). By the 1950s, however, Stewart was at sea: he was no longer young enough to play earnest young men and audiences in the post-World War Ii era were looking for something tougher and less sentimental in their heroes.
Enter Anthony Mann. Mann, a director who had gotten his start in film noir B-flicks in the '40s (Desperate, Raided, Raw Deal), usually depicting neurotic women and psychologically scarred men, had recently transitioned to B plus westerns with a difference: unlike the Gene Autry-Tom Mix-Hopalong Cassidy-Lone Ranger school of westerns popularized in film and on television, Mann's oaters were about neurotic women and psychologically scarred men– the "noir western." Stewart made his first film with Mann, Winchester '73 – about a man obsessed with catching the man who stole his Winchester '73 rifle – in 1950, and it changed his persona slightly but enough to revive his career. Still earnest, Ste wart's characters now had a dark, obsessive side that made them more psychologically complex (and which carried on into other films, the prime example being Hitchcock's Vertigo).
And that brings us to the flattery part. As I was watching Bend of the River (1952), the aforementioned Mann western, I suddenly had a profound sense of deja vu: I could predict what was going to happen. It wasn't just a case of a predictable, redundant plot line – no, the story was quite unusual and quite original. But I felt I knew this story; almost as though I had seen it before. But I knew I never had (I keep meticulous records of movies I have seen). What was it?
The mystery was partially resolved when I suddenly remembered the two-part 1966 episode of the 1964-1970 TV series, Daniel Boone, "The High Cumberland" (released theatrically abroad as Daniel Boone, Frontier Trail Rider). Here is an outline of the plots of both movies: the hero (Jimmy Stewart in Bend of the River; Fess Parker in Daniel Boone) is leading a wagon train of settlers to a new land, across the mountains; he rescues a man who is about to be hanged/killed and the man – a rougish character – joins the hero on the trail. The rogue meets the pretty woman in the wagon train who has a playful love/hate relationship with the hero and is obviously attracted to her. The wagon train is attacked by Indians and the woman is injured. The wagon train reaches a settlement where they buy supplies for the winter, which the storekeeper promises to send on in a month. The wagon train leaves; the woman stays behind to recover; the rogue stays behind, too.
A month or more goes by, and the settlers have reached their spot and settled in, but no supplies have arrived. The hero goes back with a friend to inquire. They find that their supplies are still there but have been sold to someone else for a higher price. The hero also finds the rogue is engaged to the pretty woman. The hero takes his supplies by force, aided by the rogue.
A chase follows. They get away (killing the trader in the process). On their journey back, they encounter other settlers who offer to buy their supplies for double the price. The hero turns them down. Along the way, one of the wagons breaks a wheel. While changing it, the men running the wagons – who had been hired in town – let the wagon drop on the hero's friend, injuring him. The hero punches them out, and is backed up by the rogue. The next day, however, the rogue backs up the men when they grab the hero and start beating him. The rogue stops them from killing the hero. The hero says that was a mistake and that he'll get even. In the wagon, the friend and the beautiful woman have an exchange about what one man can do to salvage the situation, on foot and unarmed. The hero eventually wins out, beating the odds – and killing the rogue in the process. He also wins the hand of the pretty woman.
Coincidence? Perhaps. The screenwriters are different. Still, it’s curious. Especially when you consider that the producer of both the movie and the TV show was Aaron Rosenberg.
April 27, 2010