When director Anthony Mann cast James Stewart, star of cuddly classics It’s A Wonderful Life and Harvey, he saw a darkness underneath his lead’s fatherly screen persona, and it’s this darkness that drives Mann’s 1955 feature The Man From Laramie, a psychological western as concerned with the destructive forces of revenge, privilege and resentment as much as it is about shoot outs and sweeping vistas. Will Lockhart (Stewart) is a man out for vengeance after his brother is killed by Native American Apaches.
When Will learns that the Apaches were using Winchester repeating rifles, he shifts his focus to finding the man who supplied them with the guns that killed his brother. Will’s companion tells him that “hate’s unbecoming in a man like you”, but the ice in Will’s eyes suggests hate comes very naturally to him indeed. There are parallels between Will’s journey and Ethan’s in John Ford’s The Searchers, although Will is undoubtedly a little softer round the edges, driven less by naked racism and more by a desire for justice. However, where The Searchers was fundamentally a meditation on the destructive nature of hate, The Man From Laramie is less reflective, using the fear of Apaches as a plot device to move Will’s story forward.
It’s telling that they are frequently spoken of but never seen, and Will never tries to find the individual Apache who shot his brother. Rather – problematically framed as a force of nature – the Apaches are held less accountable for their actions than the white man who sold them their rifles. On the hunt for the gun trader, Will clashes with wealthy rancher family the Waggomans, bringing the film’s central concern with privilege to the fore. Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp) is a successful cattle baron with a spoiled, volatile brat for a son. The evil cattle baron is somewhat of a western cliche, but Crisp invests his calculating patriarch with nuance and intelligence, and his fraught relationship with Vic is as heartbreaking as it is unfair. Keeping things on an even keel is Vic (Arthur Kennedy), right hand man and quasi-adopted son to Alec.
Vic is a far more capable and level-headed man than Alec’s son Dave (Alex Nicol), who despite his violent hotheadedness is due to inherit the ranch. Cue plenty of festering resentment in all directions, but although all three men are variously unpleasant, the only true villain here is the brattish Dave. In one of the film’s truly shocking moments, Dave shoots Will through the hand after provoking him into a shoot out, a scene that anticipates the ultra-violent Spaghetti Westerns and the era of Sam Peckinpah. All westerns are in some way about violence, but the great westerns – The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Shane – use violence to explore fundamental psychological questions. The Man From Laramie is nevertheless a complex and nuanced examination of envy, resentment and filial loyalty.