Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger shine in Richard Brooks’ engaging drama about the grim slaughter of the Buffalo — a fairly appalling historical episode. A disclaimer is required to explain why we’re seeing real animals killed on screen… which in this case would seem justified by the film’s ecological theme.
The Last Hunt
The Warner Archive Collection
1956 / Color / 2:35 enhanced widescreen / 103 min. / Street Date August 21, 2018 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Stewart Granger, Lloyd Nolan, Debra Paget, Russ Tamblyn, Constance Ford, Joe De Santis.
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Film Editor: Ben Lewis
Original Music: Daniele Amphitheatrof
From a novella by Milton Lott
Produced by Dore Schary
Written and Directed by Richard Brooks
This rather good western adds another notch to the theme of ‘the end of the West,’ preceding films by Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah and introducing an ecological theme not dissimilar to that of Romain Gary and John Huston’s The Roots of Heaven two years later. The subject is the near- eradication of the North American Bison in the 19th century, and its effect on Native Americans. It’s one of the last personal producing credits for production executive Dore Schary, who ten years before used social issue consciousness to leapfrog his way to top slots at RKO and MGM. Although Schary’s picture has a strong progressive slant, the aggressive writer-director Richard Brooks gives it a more modern, less sentimental raw edge. MGM’s last golden-age male star contractee Robert Taylor stretches himself with a vicious character more consistently villainous than John Wayne’s Indian-hater in John Ford’s The Searchers. Taylor’s character even seizes an Indian captive as his sexual property. Stewart Granger excels as the humanist good guy, who naturally voices an anachronistic sentiment or two. Asked if he hates the Taylor character, Granger responds like a 1950s liberal TV writer:
“I don’t hate him, I want to understand him. I feel responsible for him. I want to help him.” (para.)
The Last Hunt is impressively tough-minded for a show released in 1956. It’s retains the Fifties notion of ending on a fair-fight showdown, but surprises us with a satisfying twist on the cliché.
I receive frequent notes from people asking if animals were harmed in the course of a particular picture. I also have relatives that I’ve learned through sad experience to never show a film where it even appears that an animal is harmed. Considering that we see at least twenty-five of the impressive beasts shot in the course of the movie, The Last Hunt isn’t going to earn any medals from PETA. It begins with a disclaimer saying that the buffalo killed were part of an official government-run thinning out of a herd, which doesn’t make the proceedings seem less cruel. On the other hand, seeing pictures of animals being killed presents the hard truth of the matter. All I had to see was Francesco Rosi’s movie about real bullfighting to abandon all romantic illusions of the tradition.
Richard Brooks’ fairly educational screenplay details the truth about the historic buffalo slaughter. 1950s school lessons convinced us that the last three buffalo left alive were hiding in a witness protection program in New Jersey. But they located a couple of thousand for this show. In 1883, ex-soldier and buffalo hunter Sandy McKenzie (Stewart Granger) loses his herd and to earn a living is forced to go back to the awful killing of buffalo. His partner is Charlie Gilson (Robert Taylor), an unprincipled, angry man who solves all of his problems with a gun. Charlie and Sandy pick up old Woodfoot (Lloyd Nolan) and half-Indian Jimmy O’Brien (Russ Tamblyn) to serve as skinners, and begin wading into the great herds with their buffalo rifles. If they shoot properly, they can kill an entire herd without any of the animals running away.
Charlie’s associates become sickened by his hatred of Indians and overall arrogance. Charlie claims a surviving Indian Girl (Debra Paget) as his personal sexual possession. She is tending a toddler, who amuses everyone but Charlie. The more Sandy and the Girl are attracted to one another, the more inevitable is the clash between the two men. Sandy grows sick of the endless killing, that spells the end of the Indian as well as the buffalo. Woodfoot tries to be philosophical about it, and Jimmy is forced to admit his helplessness to curb Charlie’s destructive nature. Charlie seems enriched by the slaughter, but also undergoes a personality change. Woodfoot calls his derangement the buffalo sickness — a paranoid state where one can think of nothing else but killing.
The Last Hunt is something of a surprise — a middle-’50s MGM western with few budget compromises. Excellent location filming took place in South Dakota, and director Richard Brooks films only a few exteriors on MGM sound stages and uses little or no phony rear-projection for action scenes. Brooks’ screenplay gives his stars rich characterizations and plays out the realism as far as (presumably) the Production Code would let him go. The details are excellent. When Jimmy cuts his braids to drop his Indian identity, he hangs the cut hair on his belt, like a scalp. A barbershop client brings a live chicken with him as payment. We see several mass buffalo shooting scenes but no skinning activity. There are no images of animals stripped of their hides, or landscapes dotted with thousands of rotting meat carcasses. Brooks’ rich dialogue includes a graphic phrase often attributed to Sam Peckinpah, five years later: a man ‘smells bad enough to knock a dog off a gut wagon.’
The film in general follows Dore Schary’s established social comment outline. Then years before, Richard Brooks also leaped to prominence with books and screenplays in the same progressive vein. Sandy McKenzie is a guy trying to make a living, who shoots wildlife out of economic necessity. Hatred of Indians figures in everything; and even the half-breed Jimmy and the Indian Girl stand by quietly when whites talk about exterminating the red man. Charlie and Sandy couldn’t be more politically opposed. Charlie’s Alpha-male behavior is at first boorish and then dangerous. He goads an Indian into a duel just for the fun of killing him. His sexual claim on the Indian Girl is very unexpected in an American film of 1956. It is unconvincingly tamed down in a dialogue scene that tells us that Charlie hasn’t violated her because she won’t respond to his advances. Robert Taylor eventually works his way toward madness, cracking up like Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs. Imagining that thunder is the pounding of bison hooves, Charlie chases invisible buffalo herds in the dark of the night. Gun owners beware! The Last Hunt pins gun mania as a repressed desire to find fulfillment in killing. Charlie seems liberated when he wipes out an entire herd, single-handedly; he revels in his god-like potency. His only real ambition is to keep killing. He’s the Psychotic American previously evoked in the wholesale slaughter seen in King Vidor’s earlier Northwest Passage. Bloodlust of this kind is of course universal human nature, not just an American trait.
On the other hand, Sandy is disturbed by killing buffalo, even abstaining from shooting one herd. His full appreciation of Indian values comes with the killing of a sacred white buffalo (shh — nobody tell Dino De Laurentiis). Charlie has no more respect for the revered albino bull than he does anything else.
More ecological awareness arises in Woodfoot’s description of the mass buffalo hunts, where hundreds of thousands (millions?) of animals were slain in just a couple of years, with the side effect of starving out the dwindling Indian population. Sandy converts into a more conventional hero, selflessly escorting beef to a needy Indian encampment. It’s still an improvement on the tidy moral lessons delivered by the influential Albert Maltz/Delmer Daves film Broken Arrow. In addition to using the buffalo kill-off as a sign of the ‘ending of the West,’ we hear Woodfoot bemoan the passing of great mountain men and visionaries like Wild Bill Hickok.
Richard Brooks graduated to the forefront of directors with the previous year’s hit The Blackboard Jungle; he’d staged action before but excels in the western form. His saloon fight is a keeper and his action scenes in the wild exemplary. He’ll cut to unusual camera angles when appropriate. The interior studio sets passing for night exteriors are much better than usual.
Under Brooks, all of the actors shine. One can say that Robert Taylor’s deranged bigot is a more consistent villain than Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, and less theatrical than Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs. Taylor doesn’t add touches that beg for understanding, the ‘it’s not really me’ effect when a star wants to protect his image. All Stewart Granger has to do is remain calm and sensible, and he comes off as a saint, almost too much of a saint. Neither matinee idol was ever considered Academy Award material, but Taylor gave some excellent performances, and this is one of his best. I’m partial to his wagonmaster in Wiliam Wellman’s Westward the Women.
Lloyd Nolan is a dependably colorful peg-leg; his rambling speeches are well-judged and he never comes off as an up-market Gabby Hayes. Opportunities for Russ Tamblyn were thin at MGM, but when a role like this came along the talented actor often got the nod. Tamblyn doesn’t push the inexperience of the character too far, or Jimmy would come off as a half-breed Archie Andrews. Considering that Jimmy mostly stands by while his heritage is insulted (and raped), Tamblyn does wonders with the part.
Favorite Debra Paget once again plays a virtuous Indian Beauty, the kind invariably depicted taking a nude bath in a mountain stream. A production still implies nudity that the film does not. Paget replaced Anne Bancroft, who reportedly was injured on set, but may have simply rebelled. She was surely sick of playing Indian princesses as well, and had little fear of studio intimidation. We accept this movie’s Indian Girl as less offensive than usual. A vision of poise and beauty, Paget’s Indian frames succinct questions for Granger’s hero: Why don’t you hate me like the other white men? Why are you gentle with the baby?
The Last Hunt is exciting, suspenseful and fresh, even if some of it feels like an ethics lesson. Its commercial weakness is that the American public didn’t go to westerns for history lectures, especially downers telling them that the ground they walk is soaked with the blood of their victims, animal and human. The show can be compared to Robert Taylor’s earlier Anthony Mann western Devil’s Doorway, a gripping tale of civil rights outrage that is so wrenching, one viewing is usually enough. Hunt’s fair play sentiment may have been considered low-grade rabble-rousing by some viewers, an attempt to revise history. Did activist writer-producers like Dore Schary and Richard Brooks really think their movies would win converts to liberal values? The poetic conclusion suggests that the racist, arrogant evil in America will be made extinct by its own poison, which is of course wishful thinking. All one needs to be cured of that illusion is to read a book or two by Cormac McCarthy.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-Ray of The Last Hunt is an excellent encoding of this fine, big-budget western, that’s encumbered with few production compromises. Without process work or special effects, the image always looks clean and rich; the second-unit footage with large numbers of bison match the rest of the movie well.
Composer Daniele Amphiteatrof’s fine music score is used to good effect. Produced at the same time as The Searchers the show taps the same Irish theme for quiet moments. Amphitheatrof’s music for Major Dundee has often been criticized, when the fault is with producer Jerry Bresler, who drowned the film in unnecessary cues as a way to cut corners on his audio mix. I’d like to lay The Last Hunt’s title theme over the Peckinpah picture, to see how hit plays.
For extras, the WAC includes two segments (4 minutes and 8 minutes) promoting The Last Hunt in their old B&W promotional TV show MGM Parade. Russ Tamblyn talks to host George Murphy, tumbling into view for an entrance and projecting excitement. The second segment is a stiff ‘happy discussion’ between Murphy, producer Schary and director Brooks. Schary narrates an excellent set of behind-the-scenes clips from the location in the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota. He calls Debra Paget ‘decorative.’ The BTS scenes pretend that Taylor and Granger are getting ready to perform in the middle of a real, unpredictable buffalo stampede, which appears to be a complete fabrication. The footage is exciting, but I’m not sure that the promise of a buffalo stampede would actually fill theaters in 1956. Well, as the trailer (in excellent shape) shows, it’s not something one could see on TV.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Last Hunt
Movie: Very Good +plus
Supplements: Two excerpts from MGM Parade TV series, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 15, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson