Sunday, March 18, 2018

Tonight's Movie: The Last Hunt (1956) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Robert Taylor gives a memorable performance as an evil man in THE LAST HUNT (1956), a Western available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

THE LAST HUNT was written and directed by Richard Brooks, based on a novel by Milton Lott. It's the story of Charlie Gilson (Taylor), a Civil War veteran hunting buffalo for profit in 1880s South Dakota.

Charlie puts together a hunting crew consisting of Sandy McKenzie (Stewart Granger), Woodfoot (Lloyd Nolan), and a halfbreed, Jimmy (Russ Tamblyn). When their horses are stolen by Indians, an enraged Charlie tracks them down and kills them all, sparing only an Indian woman (Debra Paget) and her toddler son.

Charlie wants the woman to be his squaw, but while she will submit passively if she must in order to survive, she's clearly uninterested in his attentions. It's also not lost on Charlie that she and Sandy regularly exchange unspoken looks. Tensions between Charlie and Sandy only grow deeper as Charlie increasingly reveals himself to be unhinged, enjoying killing buffalo -- and humans -- for killing's sake.

Sandy and the woman ultimately escape the vengeful Charlie in the night, but an eventual showdown with Charlie seems inevitable.

This is a grim, gritty film which is almost shocking in what it puts onscreen in the mid '50s. The film begins with cards explaining that the movie was filmed during the annual thinning of buffalo herds by the U.S. government, but it's still disconcerting to have them killed for real onscreen.

The opening sequence, with Sandy and Charlie talking while Sandy walks around shooting downed but not dead buffalo is a bit jaw-dropping, to say the least. His shooting might have been staged but the buffalo were real so... While I can appreciate that the film wanted to accurately show the rough reality of frontier life of the time, that doesn't mean it's pleasant to watch.

The film is also unusually blunt for its era as far as the Taylor-Paget scenes. There's not a lot of dialogue, but it's not needed in order to convey that Taylor wants to make use of her, so to speak, and not just as an extra hand to work on buffalo hides. A scene with Granger upstairs in a saloon is also fairly bawdy for the mid '50s.

Taylor and Granger flip their good guy/bad guy roles of ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT (1953) a few years before. By all accounts Taylor was a true gentleman and consummate professional offscreen, but he is incredibly convincing here as an angry, disturbed, racist psychopath. (I could probably throw in a few more adjectives but I'll stop there!) He's chilling...which makes his last, spookily memorable scene perfect. Taylor has been so underrated over the years; in a just world a performance like this should have gained him an Oscar nomination.

I enjoy Granger in his MGM films a great deal, although his character here is somewhat ineffectual, which I suppose is how he ended up agreeing to work for a man like Charlie in the first place. I was surprised when he didn't immediately react more strongly when Charlie slapped the woman, though perhaps he showed wisdom in his patience, as any action on his part would have led to a deadly showdown. As it was, his mere promise to kill Charlie if he hit her again nearly provoked a fight. In the end, Sandy shows his compassion not only by helping the woman and child but also going to great effort to rescue a starving Indian tribe.

As in BROKEN ARROW (1950), Paget is once again a beautiful Indian woman. She's a quiet, nameless character but has a real spine, deliberately claiming the orphaned child as her own to prevent Charlie from killing him, as he clearly would like to be rid of the baby. (It's uncomfortably clear that Charlie would get rid of the tyke without compunction.) With few lines, Paget conveys a woman who has weathered considerable misery and is made of strong stuff. Her finding happiness with Sandy is the only light in a very dark film.

While I admired what the filmmakers accomplished and am glad I finally saw a key film in Taylor's career, that darkness makes it hard to call the film an enjoyable watch. Well-done and thought-provoking, yes; something I'm going to be anxious to watch again, no. Once was probably enough.

The Warner Archive DVD runs an hour and 44 minutes, which varies from IMDb's listed time of an hour and 48 minutes. The remastered widescreen Warner Archive print is beautiful, showing off Russell Harlan's fine CinemaScope photography. The movie was filmed in Eastmancolor on location in South Dakota. There are some obvious soundstage shots, mostly around the campfire, and some interiors including in MGM's well-used frontier general store, but much of the movie was shot outdoors and looks absolutely great.

The DVD includes the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Laura, yes this was most definitely a grim, gritty, blunt, and shocking movie for 1956 movie audiences. It still was when I first saw it on television in the 1960's. I can't think of a more harsh realistic Western that was released during the 1950's. Who said Robert Taylor wasn't a good actor? Charlie Gilson(Robert Taylor) made Ethan Edwards(John Wayne in THE SEARCHERS) look tame. Others in the cast are good, but Taylor's scary sadistic killer towers over them. There is a haunting redemption here that is unforgettable.

Writer-Director Richard Brooks was out to capture realism and he did. In one scene the Lakota tribe are waiting for the arrival of government beef. Dewey Beard(1858-1955) and wife Alice show disappointment when told the cattle haven't arrived. Dewey Beard was Wasa Mazu, a Minneconjou Lakota, who was the last living survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn. He latter joined the Ghost Dance Movement and was shot at Wounded Knee.

11:17 PM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

That's really interesting detail about Dewey Beard, Walter.

I have been VERY interested to read what you thought of "THE LAST HUNT", Laura. I remember how shocked I felt when I first caught it on TV in the 60s, both for the vicious nature of Taylor's character but especially the seemingly endless scenes of the killing of the magnificent buffalo.
I watched the film again relatively recently and felt no reason to feel differently this time. However, the film is brave, gritty and very well done.
Granger was suitably restrained here and effectively so, to counter the horrific yet magnificent performance by Taylor. This was a high point (maybe even THE high point) as an actor in Taylor's career. Absolutely superb.
Still not an easy watch, for sure.

1:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jerry, Wasa Mazu or Dewey Beard, the name he took after converting to Roman Catholicism, has an interesting life story. His family were killed at Wounded Knee in 1890. He later toured with Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show for fifteen years and appeared with Buffalo Bill in the 1914 movie THE INDIAN WARS. Sadly, only a fragment of this movie still exists. This movie was filmed in the Autumn of 1913 on actual locations, with 1,000 Lakota and the 12th US Cavalry reenacting the events. The movie was only shown in New York City and Denver.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

Thanks again, Walter. Great info, about which I knew nothing. Adds further depth to the movie, I feel.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for your comments, Walter and Jerry! Interested that you both found it as shocking as I did. That opening, I was like "I can't believe they're doing this" and it went on from there (grin).

Thank you also for the background information!

Best wishes,

12:11 PM  
Blogger Kristina said...

Incredible, unforgettable work by Taylor, isn't it? And that bit where he's frozen is echoed in THE SHINING.

10:14 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Definitely, Kristina!!

Interesting reference to THE SHINING! Fun it originated here. :)

Best wishes,

9:35 AM  

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