Whenever he went too far away from the Western, Mann looked a very conventional director, which is to say that Men in War and El Cid are disguised Westerns, working toward an ordeal by combat that defines honor. But Serenade is intolerable, or so Mann makes it seem despite the presence of his wife, Sarita Montiel; Strategic Air Command is boringly filled with giant aircraft: The Glenn Miller Story is overwhelming nostalgia, but too obedient to fond memories of the bandleader to give the screen characters an existence of their own; Thunder Bay—even with James Stewart—is indifferent; The Fall of the Roman Empire and The Heroes of Telemark are without urgency; and God's Little Acre is a restrained attempt at the cheerful bawdiness of Ersldne Caldwell.
The most intriguing failure is The Tin Star, a Western in which bounty hunter Henry Fonda educates raw sheriff Anthony Perkins and is himself domesticated. The set pieces in that film are VistaVision crisp, and the camera movements like proofs of theorems, for no other director could so elucidate violence. But most of the film is set in a town and its message is simplistically in favor of civic order and domestic calm—ideas that are remote from Mann's best work, apart from the matriarchal Cimarron. The Tin Star illustrates Mann’s tendency to be clinical or academic, and both Fonda and Perkins look like business executives dressed up in cowboy togs.
Even his best Westerns—Winchester 73, Bend of the River, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie, and The Last Frontier— seem in retrospect rather too neatly self- contained. The parable starkness of the stories and the flawless command of the landscape photography tend to sidestep the actual issues of honor, betrayal, violence, and death that the films claim to deal with. What motivates so many of them is the presence of James Stewart and his suppressed neuroses as the adventurer hero. The concept of responsibility in The Far Country and of vengeance in The Man from Laramie turn on Stewart’s involvement.
As a rule, though, Mann does not touch his actors very much. If they are not well cast he is prepared to ignore them and withdraw Iris camera to observe some of the most articulated moments of combat in the cinema: the implacable pursuit in Bend of the River; the scene at the salt flats in The Man from Laramie; the death of Walter Brennan in The Far Country; the entire, traveling engagement in Men in War, so abstract that the enemy is barely seen, so physical that one could draw a contour map of the terrain. The achievement of this topographical photography is unique in the history of the Western, and at its best it is inseparable from the feeling of peril in the conflict. At times one marvels at the combined visual elegance and emotional exhaustion in a film. The Man from Laramie, especially, is filled with pain, and it benefits from the fullest exposition of the friendly treachery in Arthur Kennedy. While The Last Frontier has an unusual hero, an Indian scout, and contains, from Anne Bancroft, one of the very few good performances from an actress in all of Mann’s work.
Brilliant as these Westerns are, they remain a trifle neat and complacent. Mann might not deserve his high place on their strength alone. But Men in War. Man of the West, and El Cid substantially enlarged his commitment to the action he observes so faithfully. In all three, he managed to invest a legendary situation with an extra significance. No one could have doubted that Men in War would have a visual exactness beyond eriticism, but its argument—that violence must be total if it is to succeed, and that its success is destructive of the man who resorts to it—is applied without any slackening, so that the last scenes of the film are resigned and foreboding.
In Man of the West, Mann has a dying Gary Cooper as his hero, an ex-outlaw robbed by former comrades. Whereas some of the Stewart films seem like exercises out of doors, there is no escaping the tragedy of Man of the West or the way it af fects the Cooper character. Not as clean-looking as his earlier Westerns, it is more cruel and penetrating.
El Cid was an astonishing departure and a total success. Its treatment of the Spanish hero is based on Mann’s abiding interest in the strains put upon the man of honor and the way that he vindicates himself through trial of arms. The simplicity of the conception does not seem artificial; instead it relates to the cinema’s earliest portraits of the virtuous hero and to the medium’s power to combine physical and moral tension. Austerely devoid of medievalism, El Cid's epic format contains vicious hand-to-hand battles that are made pivotal to the hero's integrity. Perhaps Mann was the last director able to see a Manichaean struggle within battle and to convey that significance without demur. Beal battles are messy—like Fuller’s—but Mann’s are artistically ordered by heroic optimism, the very quality we feel being extinguished in Men in War and Man of the West.
In Mann’s great days as a director—in the forties and fifties—he had few intelligent admirers in America. Nowadays, he is taken for granted as someone from “that golden age.” But, in truth, Mann’s value arose in that age of transition after the gold: his heroes face more testing problems than gold allowed. So acceptance doesn’t necessarily entail understanding, or the ability to look at what’s happening on the screen—much less how it's happening. That's how Mann was neglected in his heyday, and that’s why many people still regard movies as versions of theatre or literature. (It was good form to think well of Mankiewicz, Wyler, Zinnemann, and Kramer in the fifties.) Anthony Mann is one of those directors who has to be witnessed—on a big screen—before understanding can begin.
Even so, he owed a good deal to collaborators— to John C. Higgins, who wrote Railroaded, T-Men, Raw Deal, and Border Incident; to photographer John Alton, who shot T-Men. Raw Deal, Reign of Terror, Border Incident, and Devil’s Doorway; to James Stewart, of course; to Borden Chase, who wrote Winchester 73, Bend of the River, and The Far Country; and to Philip Yordan, who wrote Reign of Terror, The Man from Laramie, The Last Frontier, Men in War, God’s Little Acre, El Cid, and The Fall of the Roman Empire.
There’s no doubt the savage economy of the B pictures from the forties, their dash of cruelty, and the panache of the lighting. But Mann was not by nature claustrophobic or quite as neurotic as those noirs suggest. It's no disparagement if he simply directed the earlier films, seeing what they were good for and getting the most out of them. It may be wishful thinking to reckon that anyone in Hollvwood could have dreamed of imposing himself on a series of B pictures.
But in the fifties, with better budgets and more liberty, there’s no question about emergent personality. Mann’s Westerns are psychological, and his best heroes are beset by self-doubt. But it’s too big a stretch to call those films neurotic when they revel in the beauty of daylight, space, and distance. Rather, Mann discovered his own Western sensibility, which was to see human stories as small, and even aberrant, in the vastness of terrain. Thus, Winchester 73 is a round, a circle, that needs huge horizons; while in El Cid, the real beach at Valencia reaches into legend. No one has ever matched that feeling for heroic openness.