Friday, February 16, 2007

Tonight's Movie: The Last Wagon (1956)

THE LAST WAGON is a highly entertaining Western yarn which finds Richard Widmark playing Comanche Todd, who has been unjustly arrested for murder and is being escorted to his trial in a small wagon train. After the Apaches attack the traveling party, it's up to Todd, who was raised by Comanches, to use his outdoors know-how to save the half-dozen teenage survivors.

Many of the young people start out fearing or disliking Todd due to his prisoner status or his Indian association, but over the course of their dangerous journey they all learn important life lessons.

I thought Widmark was terrific in this film. I've acquired quite a liking for him, having seen him in recent months in PANIC IN THE STREETS and YELLOW SKY. He seems equally at home playing heroes and villains. THE STREET WITH NO NAME, BACKLASH, TUNNEL OF LOVE, and TWO RODE TOGETHER are Widmark movies in my "watch soon" pile.

Felicia Farr -- who a few years later would marry Jack Lemmon -- plays the oldest of the survivors, who eventually falls in love with Todd. The youngest is played by Tommy Rettig, who played Widmark's son in PANIC IN THE STREETS. Susan Kohner, Nick Adams, James Drury, and Stephanie Griffin round out the cast. It's interesting to note that Griffin would not appear on film again for over three decades, until the 1989 TV-movie THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY.

The film has gorgeous scenic vistas filmed near Sedona, Arizona. It also boasts a lovely score by Lionel Newman -- and, one might add, a memorably romantic love scene. The film's violence is conveyed in a muted, tasteful fashion, often offscreen, but viewers should be forewarned that certain aspects of the story could be disturbing to young children.

THE LAST WAGON runs 98 minutes. It was directed by Delmer Daves, who also cowrote the screenplay. Daves' screenplays include LOVE AFFAIR, YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER, AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, and A SUMMER PLACE; he also directed the latter.

It's available in a beautiful widescreen DVD. A pan-and-scan version is included in the set, but who would want to watch it with big chunks of those breathtaking Arizona vistas cut off?!

It can also be seen on TCM; their site reviews the film here ("a gem which deserves rediscovery") and here.


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