In 1866, remorseful former border raider Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart) is scouting for a wagon train of settlers to Oregon. While he is checking the trail ahead, he rescues Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from being lynched for stealing a horse. Cole, who says the horse is "not exactly stolen," thinks he's heard of McLyntock, but doesn't pursue the subject. One of the pioneers in the wagon train is the eligible Laura Baile (Julie Adams). That night, they are attacked by five Shoshone Indians and Laurie is wounded by an arrow. McLyntock and Cole go out to deal with the Shoshones and Cole saves McLyntock's life in the process. McLyntock welcomes Cole, but Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen), the leader of the settlers, does not trust Cole and does not believe that a man can change from bad to good.
When they reach Portland, Oregon, Laura remains there to recover. Cole also leaves the party saying that he wants to go to California to find gold. The rest, including McLyntock, go on to establish a settlement in the wilderness after making arrangements with a man named Tom Hendricks to send the supplies they need for the winter to be sent on later ("the first week in September"). That night, they have a big party and meet a professional gambler named Trey Wilson (played by Rock Hudson).
With winter fast approaching and the supplies at least six weeks late, they begin to worry when the food supply runs low. McLyntock and Jeremy Baile go back to Portland to investigate. They find that a gold rush has inflated prices enormously. Laura and Cole are working for Tom Hendricks and have no intention of going to the settlement. McLyntock is not happy to see them together as a couple. Hendricks (Howard Petrie), their greedy supplier, has reneged on their business deal and has decided to sell their supplies at the new higher prices to a mining camp. Cole helps McLyntock round up some bad men to load the food and take it back to the settlement. Laura joins them. When they are pursued, McLyntock sets up an ambush. Hendricks and some of his gang are killed, and the rest are driven off.
On the way to the settlement, some of the miners show up and offer an exorbitant price for the food. The hired men begin thinking about ways to commandeer the wagon train. Cole cannot resist the temptation of all that money and double-crosses his friend but doesn't kill him. That proves to be a mistake. McLyntock tracks them down and retakes the supplies with the assistance of Jeremy, Laura, and Trey. Cole brings the miners to help him retake the supplies, but they are miners, not gunfighters and they lose to the more experienced gunhands. In a climactic brawl in the river, McLyntock kills Cole and they watch the current take his body toward the falls. At the end, they finally reach the settlement with the supplies and it's apparent that Laura and Glyn are now a couple.James Stewart as Glyn McLyntock
Arthur Kennedy as Emerson Cole
Julie Adams as Laura Baile
Rock Hudson as Trey Wilson, a professional gambler
Lori Nelson as Marjie Baile
Jay C. Flippen as Jeremy Baile
Howard Petrie as Tom Hendricks
Chubby Johnson as Captain Mello
Stepin Fetchit as Adam, Mello's assistant
Harry Morgan as Shorty, one of the treacherous hired men
Jack Lambert as Red, another hired hand
Royal Dano as Long Tom, a third untrustworthy hire-on
Frances Bavier as Mrs. Prentiss (better known as Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show)
James Stewart, best known for his down-to-earth persona, established another persona along with director Anthony Mann with the 1950 Western film Winchester '73. This new Stewart persona was more violent, edgier and more disillusioned, but a persona that was still likable. This collaboration included eight films, five of them Westerns. Along with Winchester '73 and Bend of the River, these included The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954) and The Man From Laramie (1955). This was the second of the Western collaborations between them.
The film was written by Borden Chase, who had co-written Winchester '73 and would write The Far Country. It was based on the 1950 novel Bend of the Snake, by Bill Gulick.
Character actor Arthur Kennedy was cast as Emerson Cole. Kennedy was confined to shooting riding scenes until his knee healed, after spraining it while filming the fight scene with Jay C. Flippen, who plays Jeremy Baile, the leader of the Baile family. Julie Adams was cast as Laura while Lori Nelson was cast as her sister Marjie. Adams is best known for her role as Kay Lawrence in the 1954 horror film Creature from the Black Lagoon and Nelson played the female lead role in the 1955 sequel Revenge of the Creature, which were both directed by Jack Arnold. Rock Hudson played Trey Wilson, a professional gambler.
The film was filmed in Mount Hood, Sandy River and Timberline, Oregon.
To promote the film before it was released, a 3.6 mile steamboat race on the Columbia River was staged on January 24, 1952, featuring the sternwheeler Henderson (which had been used in the film, and which had several of the stars onboard) versus the newer sternwheeler Portland. The Henderson won the race.
The film first released on February 13, 1952. The film grossed about $3 million. When first released, the film received poor reviews, but has since then gained more critical acclaim and is recognized as a great Western.
Stewart took a percentage of the profits. In 1953, William Goetz estimated that Stewart had earned $750,000 from the film.
In 2008, Bend of the River was nominated for AFI's Top 10 Western Films list.