Due to conflict and an eventual breach over the making of Night Passage (James Neilson, 1957), The Man From Laramie (1955) became the final collaboration between Anthony Mann and James Stewart whose association resulted in five remarkable Westerns and several other films in the 1950s (1). These Westerns transcended their generic structure by being allegories of masculinity in crisis during the Cold War era that often resulted in insecurity, madness and paranoia on the part of their nominal heroes. These films often indirectly reflected the tensions of their era, as seen in The Man From Laramie’s nominal association with a screenwriter (Philip Yordan) often known for employing blacklisted writers and acting as a front. This last Mann-Stewart collaboration is not only a fitting conclusion to their work together but also a film that reflects the director’s unfinished project to make a Western version of King Lear (2). Although Mann died before he could finally begin this project, it can be argued that both this film and Man of the West (1958) already fulfill this concept. If Shakespeare’s historical plays reflect the power politics of the Elizabethan era, The Man From Laramie also indirectly reflects those underground Cold War tensions often expressed in marginalised genres such as film noir, the Western, and the melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Mann’s background in Greek and Shakespearean drama, as well as his intuitive awareness of prevailing issues in his own era, makes this film both a remarkable Western and a key cultural document of the Cold War.
Credits roll against a vocal rendition of the obligatory theme song over images of barbed wire symbolic of the violent internal and external tensions of The Barb ranch. The first scene reveals Mann’s familiar use of landscape, whose barren images aptly symbolise the emotional wasteland operating within his hero. Like Lin McAdam of Winchester ’73 (1950), Will Lockhart (James Stewart) is on a mission to avenge the death of a family member and, like his predecessor, he takes no pleasure in his obligatory duty. Travelling with fellow outsider Charley (Wallace Ford), an Irish-Apache half-breed, he will also find himself a man outside two worlds: the family institution of Western civilisation and the army life he has reluctantly abandoned. As the wagon stops, and Will descends and moves up a hill, his figure caught within the reins of a mule (another emblem of mixed origins) team, he sees the place where his younger brother died. The camera pans left, viewing the post-massacre desolation of an Apache attack on an army patrol. Will picks up an officer’s hat, recognising who it belonged to. The older man acts in the manner of a Greek and Shakespearean chorus revealing Will’s thoughts: “Hate is unbecoming in a man like you and in some way it shows.” Will comments that viewing the scene “reminds me why I came here”. He is another archetypal Mann hero trapped both by his vengeful instincts as well as a society that has generated them. When he later enters the domain of civilisation, he faces further entrapment as symbolised by the two scenes featuring stairway framing: as he enters Barbara Waggoman’s Mercantile Store and through the overhead ceilings of the house of Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp) reminiscent of the claustrophobic interior shots often employed by Orson Welles.
Like The Furies (1950), The Man From Laramie is another instance of “The House of Atreus Goes West” (3) meeting King Lear. Both films feature obstinate patriarchs blind to the surrounding tensions they have unknowingly generated. As Will later tells Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell), he bears no real responsibility for the ensuing tragedy: “My coming had nothing to do with it. The seeds were planted long ago.” These seeds are not just individual but related to the hidden corruption lying dormant within American ideas of Manifest Destiny (ideas that are still highly pertinent). Alec Waggoman is the film’s King Lear and Gloucester. Spiritually blind and on the way to becoming physically so as well, he is the Man from the East who has gone to New Mexico and achieved success as a cattle baron but who is unaware of the dangerous nature of the “sons” who surround him. Like Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) in Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956), Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol) cannot live up to the foreboding image of his father, expressing his rage in bouts of infantile violence and male hysteria. Alec’s “adopted” son Vic (Arthur Kennedy) attempts to be the Cordelia in this perverse family circle, but unlike his Shakespearean predecessor he is neither innocent nor even secure with his own masculine identity. Unlike the contemporaneous television series first broadcast in October 1954, Alec is a “Father” who does not “Know Best”. He entrusts his son to the devious Vic. He tells Dave, “I hate to tell you but you’re not the man I am. You’ll meet someone and he’ll break you.” Yet, Alec was once seduced by a woman from the East who dragged him to the altar before he knew it and produced an heir whom she spoiled in retaliation against her husband. Even then Alec was not fully in control of events. Despite Barbara’s warnings that Alec will betray him as he did her own father, Vic is a pathetic individual looking upon Alec as the father he never had, a condition the cunning patriarch is aware of while using and abusing him until he has served his purpose. When Alec tells Vic, “Love my son like a brother and I’ll love you like a son”, the latter (played by an actor looking all of his fiftyish- years) slavishly responds, “Pa!” He later tells Alec, “I loved you like any boy who never had a father”. The family unit in The Man From Laramie generates psychological sickness rather than the supposedly healthy pioneer family values found in most Westerns.
Charley is a product of Irish and Apache families, neither of whom particularly welcomes him. By contrast, Will, from an early age, has only known life in the barracks and tells Barbara, “The army’s a pretty good place for a fellow who’s alone. I kind of miss it.” The other orphan, Charley, recognises Will as a kindred spirit. “I’m a lonely man, Mr. Lockhart. So are you. But I feel that I know you and I like what I know.” Kate (Aline McMahon) waits for her man during many decades of loneliness. His blindness brings them together: “Don’t go away Kate”. She replies, “I’ve never left you, Alec”. However, this touching image of late-life fulfillment becomes undermined when her farewell to Will is abbreviated by Alec’s tyrannical summons from within. As Kate goes inside, she calls Barbara. But whatever matchmaking purpose Kate may have in mind is undercut when Will tells Barbara to ask for Captain Lockhart if (italics mine) she passes Laramie on her way East. Barbara replies “I’ll remember that”, in a manner intimating that she sees no future in a relationship which the other partner does not seem to be enthusiastic about, as if remembering the doomed relationship between Alec and his deceased wife. Will wishes to return to the only institution that has offered him security throughout his entire life. Unlike the ending of My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946), this knightly hero does not encourage any further courtship with his “lady fair” but intends to remain free from the destructive traps of marriage and family that he has witnessed in Coronado.
Will has seen a vision of this dark alternative in Vic, a man who has toiled for a tyrannical boss, acted against his master in an Iago-like manner by tempting his son in illegal trading with the Apaches, has killed his surrogate brother and nearly murdered his symbolic father. Alec eventually realises that the ghostly figure in his dreams that will arrive one day and kill his beloved son is not Will but “was in my house”, an illegitimate heir who resembles Edmund in King Lear. By the time Will is ready to shoot Vic in revenge for the death of his brother he cannot bring himself to do so. But this is less to do with a redeeming figure like Lina (Janet Leigh) in The Naked Spur (1953) and more with disgust over the polluted figure before him and his desire to avoid any more contamination by corrupt family values. As an orphan, Vic wished to fulfill his own version of the capitalist dream also conspicuously promoted in the decade the film appeared (but one only open to a select few or those who employ ruthless means to succeed). With a look of total disgust on his face, Will tells Vic to “Get away from me.” He understands Vic as a mirror image of what he may become and shuns him like a plague carrier. The Apaches will fulfill Will’s revenge as “other” agents from his repressed consciousness. Will does not take Vic’s place as Barbara’s intended husband. He will return to Laramie safe from the contaminating world of civilisation, marriage and family (4).
Visually and thematically, The Man From Laramie exemplifies Mann’s highly accomplished use of CinemaScope. From the revealing use of landscape, the presence of violent movements such as Will being dragged through a campfire to end up in the foreground of the shot (complemented when the camera tracks back before him as he sees Dave and walks towards his revenge), the close-up of Will’s hand before Dave shoots it, to the final images of Vic and Will in the background and foreground of the frame, The Man From Laramie represents one of the most professional uses of the new format that is meaningful rather than merely flamboyant (5). It is also a film subversively critical of American ideas of Manifest Destiny that “won the West”, and the obsessive search for new future territories as well as the recognition of the psychological casualties caused by a family institution that ruins all those trapped within its web. Mann’s later, misunderstood The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) further explores these issues by using the Epic to critique both Cold War paranoia as well as an Empire approaching bankruptcy due to mismanagement and warmongering like today’s Imperial America.
- For the significance of the Mann/Stewart collaboration see Robert Horton, “Two Rode Together”, Film Comment vol. 26, no. 2, March-April 1990, pp. 40-46.
- See Jim Kitses, Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood, new ed., BFI, London, 2004, p. 165.
- Stephen Handzo, “Going Through the Devil’s Doorway: The Early Westerns of Anthony Mann”, Bright Lights vol. 1, no. 4, 1976, p. 14.
- Man of the West will represent Mann’s culminating vision of the family as the source of various types of monsters, and anticipates the family horror film of the 1970s (as Christopher Sharrett also notes). For associations between Westerns and horror films see Tony Williams, Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film, Fairleigh Dickinson Press, New Jersey, 1996, pp. 23-24.
- Like Nicholas Ray in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Mann uses close-ups effectively in a format that appeared antithetical to such practices. Jeanine Basinger provides an exemplary reading of the director’s use of this new format. “The use of ’scope has Stewart’s hand filling the entire frame, naked and vulnerable without its glove. [Alex] Nicol’s gun arrives in the frame from the opposite side and fills the space, literally driving the hand out of the frame, destroying it.” Basinger, Anthony Mann, new ed., Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2007, p. 103
The Man From Laramie (1955 USA 103 mins)
Prod Co: William Goetz Productions/Columbia Prod: William Goetz Dir: Anthony Mann Scr: Philip Yordan, Frank Burt, from the story by Thomas T. Flynn Phot: Charles Lang Ed: William Lyon Prod Des: Cary Odell Mus: George Duning
Cast: James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Crisp, Cathy O’Donnell, Alex Nicol, Aline McMahon, Wallace Ford