This is mostly a story about the growing relationship between cowboy Jeff Webster(Jimmy Stewart) and femme fatale Ronda Castle(Ruth Roman). She takes an instant liking to Jeff with just a brief encounter on the deck of the steamer to Skagway, and a longer look when he hides in her cabin while authorities look for him, charged with murder. They find out they have some important things in common, besides an animal attraction. Namely, neither dares to trust a member of the opposite sex, having apparently married to spouses who cheated on them. Gradually, they learn to trust each other, as they journey from Skagway to Dawson. But Ronda clearly has close dealings with corrupt Sheriff Gannon and engages in some shady practices in her Castle saloon in Skagway. She eventually is forced to decide between Gannon and Jeff. Meanwhile, a young naive French woman, Renee, also takes an immediate liking to Jeff, but only gets insulting brush offs in return. Clearly too young for him, he thinks. Yet, she sticks with him in his travels from Skagway to Dawson and his activities around Dawson. Along with Ronda, she nurses him back to health after he is left for dead by Gannon's gunslingers at his gold claim. Walter Brennan, as Ben, serves as Jeff's long time sidekick. He doesn't have a meaty role, but he does serve to soften Jeff's hard edges. His demise symbolically opens the door for a woman companion replacement for Jeff.
John McIntire, as sheriff Gannon, makes probably the most charismatic evil town boss you will ever see on film, oozing charm and humor to go along with his bullying. He makes a believable incarnation of the infamous Soapy Smith, who spent his last years in Skagway, as one of the premier con men of his era. Evidently, Gannon sees something of himself in Jeff, repeatedly declaring that he's going to like him(and kill him).
Jeff is the quintessential antihero, a loner(except for companion Ben) who doesn't want to stick his neck out for others, even when he knows he is the one right man for the job. In this respect, he closely resembles Burt Lancaster's character in "Vera Cruz", for example. Thus, Jeff not only turns down the job of marshall of Dawson, he is about to leave the Yukon after Gannon's gang moves in with clear intentions of taking over everyone's insufficiently legal mining claims, while disposing of some of the miners and suggesting that the rest make a hurried exit from the Yukon while they are still alive. Even Ronda suggests that she and Jeff best leave together quickly. Then, Jeff has a sudden change of heart, apparently still nursing a desire for revenge for the shooting of Ben and himself. He changes from antihero to hero in leading the expulsion of Gannon's gang from Dawson. In this respect, he differ's from Lancaster's character, who never reforms. But, is Jeff truly changed or just carrying out revenge for wrongs committed against his own interests, which happen to benefit the whole town? We'll never know.
The main problem I see with the plot is the 2 principle women. Clearly, Ronda is groomed as the right woman to tame Jeff. Although she is clearly characterized as a "bad" girl, Jeff has a checkered past himself, having shot at least 5 men within the past few months, and having stolen back his cattle from Gannon. Ironically, soon after Jeff transforms from an antihero into a hero, Ronda makes a similar change in running into the dark street to warn Jeff of Gannon's impending ambush. She dies as a result, and Jeff asks why she didn't just look out for herself(his supposedly just adandoned creed!).
It's clear that Corinne Calvet, as Renee, just doesn't make a credible substitute for the dead Ronda, in Jeff's mind. Yet, the clear suggestion of the parting scene is that they get together, even though they never visibly exchange a kiss or hug, just a hand on hand as a start. Her image as a "good" girl is somewhat compromised by her job in Ronda's saloon of bumping miners weighing their gold dust and pushing the spilled dust on the floor, which she later recovers. Also, I'm very unclear about her relationship with Rube Morris(Jay Flippen), a middle-aged miner, who follows her around and later works a claim with her.(He's not her father).
Another flaw is the amateurish handling of the terminal gunfight between Jeff and Gannon's gang. If Gannon had any skill at all with a pistol, he should have killed or seriously wounded Jeff under that boardwalk before Jeff did the same to him. And how did Jeff's badly shot up right hand suddenly become well enough to shoot a pistol with apparent ease? I also wonder what Jeff and friends did to help the victims of the avalanche. They were too far away to get there in time to pull them out alive from under the snow, even if they knew where they were! And why weren't most of Ronda's pack horses or mules also buried by the avalanche?
You will see a host of probably nameless but familiar faces among the miners around Dawson and among Gannon's gang. The sequences shot in the Canadian Rockies provide a breathtaking backdrop to the action. All-in- all, a very entertaining western, with most of the major flaws concentrated at the end. No doubt, great liberties with history and geography were taken, especially the parts taking place in the Canadian Yukon which was, in fact, much tamer than the US Skagway. No Jeff would have been required to quickly rid the Yukon of any Gannon-like badmen.