When Anthony Mann died in 1967, he was planning a Western King Lear, with sons replacing the daughters. This long-cherished project might have turned out to be a classic, since no director of Westerns made them nearer to classical tragedy – and Mann had a feeling for landscape to equal John Ford. The best also reveal in their protagonists an acute sense of human fallibility and self-doubt.
Many of the Westerns directed by Mann in the 50s, such as Winchester 73 and The Man From Laramie, starred James Stewart. Not only did they give the actor a new lease of life; they remain outstanding within the genre. But the greatest of all, Man of the West, made in 1958, starred Gary Cooper. He was Link Jones, a reformed gunfighter who is forced to betray his new-found pacifism by annihilating one by one the gang who used to be his comrades.
The film brings to the fore all Mann’s preoccupations and knits them perfectly together. Lear is paralleled by the fact that Lee J Cobb’s gang leader regards Link as his favourite son and, before he realises what is happening, welcomes him back with open arms.
Link is travelling from a community he has helped build to Fort Worth to find a teacher for the new school. His train is ambushed and robbed by his former colleagues. Stranded, he is forced to return to the gang’s old hideout for shelter. There he gets into a fight with one of his old friends that ends in him stripping the man of his clothes. They are both humiliated – the crook for obvious reasons, Link because he has had to resort to a violence he has come to hate. If he wants to save himself and his new life, he realises he has to deny everything he now holds dear.
The finale is inevitable: Cooper versus Cobb, and one of them will surely die. Both actors give extraordinary performances. Cooper, in real life getting sick with the cancer that was to kill him three years later, makes one last, successful effort to prove he could be a consummate screen actor and Cobb contributes a dignified performance that does not entirely preclude our sympathy.
Mann’s direction is immaculate, making Reginald Rose’s clearly allegorical, and sometimes forced, screenplay seem even better than it is.
Mann’s career started with low-budget thrillers, progressed to Westerns, and ended with epics such as El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. He never glorified violence but set it within the context of his stories. He was a film-maker who, at his best, could be compared to anyone in matching the power of his images with his blunt version of psychological truth.