January 14, 2019
The Last Command, filmed and distributed by Republic in close to its final high-profile shot at industry survival, is a low-key affair by Alamo-movie standards that sets its table by delving more into the preliminary relationship between the Texans and Mexicans than most in its specific genre do, while J. Carrol Naish as Santa Ana delivers the film’s most colorful performance. This was the final film from veteran director Frank Lloyd, though the well-staged final battle here was actually directed by William Witney.
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Stars Sterling Hayden, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Richard Carlson, Ernest Borgnine, Arthur Hunnicutt.
Respectable enough without really altering the course of any cinephile’s republic, The Last Command — filmed and distributed by Republic in close to its final high-profile shot at industry survival — is of interest for several reasons, including even a few that occur on screen. With about as much to do with the eponymously titled late-silent Josef von Sternberg classic as those two films’ respective leads (Emil Jannings and Sterling Hayden) did with each other, the 1955 Command is a low-key affair by Alamo-movie standards that sets its table by delving more into the preliminary relationship between the Texans and Mexicans than most in its specific genre do.
Were Jim Bowie (Sterling Hayden) and Santa Ana (J. Carrol Naish) really old buds, as the movie contends? According to Alamo historian Frank Thompson on his Blu-ray commentary (and he rather likes the picture), they likely didn’t even know each other. But the device does humanize the Mexicans more than most screen portrayals of the battle, and Naish delivers Command’s most colorful performance — which isn’t to deny the fun in watching Ernest Borgnine toy with a role that makes no sense.
This was the final film from deadly dull veteran director Frank Lloyd, who had won two Oscars in during those “anything went” days of the early academy before also giving us, one must concede, Mutiny on the Bounty. The Alamo in Trucolor was a decent way to go out on a career, though the well-staged final battle here was actually directed by William Witney — a great director of horses (this is not mean as a veiled put-down) who has been characterized by Quentin Tarantino as a greater filmmaker than John Ford. (OK, for that, QT, your upcoming Charles Manson picture had better be better than The Godfather.) Limited to just what’s one screen, this is one of Lloyd’s better-to-best pictures, though tangential considerations give a significant boost to the movie’s curiosity factor. Though the first of these would have been known only to industry insiders at the time, the second would have hit viewers (and children especially) between their 1955 eyes.
The inside-baseball one has to do with Command’s status as Republic chief Herbert Yates’s way to shaft onetime contract star John Wayne, whose subsequently realized dream of making his own Alamo movie extended all the way back to the 1940s, when Yates was occasionally forcing Wayne to co-star with his mistress and eventual wife (Vera Hruba Ralston) — who never managed to put the hubba-hubba in “Hruba” and otherwise had all the box office clout of, say, Tokyo Rose. When Wayne left Republic, Yates coughed up $2 million of the studio’s fast-dwindling coffers to bankroll Lloyd’s own take on the saga; you really have to give it to the latter’s prowess as a deal-maker in managing to hack off (royally and permanently) the three biggest stars he ever had: Wayne, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Of course, that still left Yates with contractee Rod Cameron.
By contrast, the production sidebar known to everyone was Arthur Hunnicutt’s casting as Alamo fatality Davy Crockett, a by now folkloric phenomenon who’d spent all of ’55 making Walt Disney a ton of money, sparking two smash 45 singles (one by Bill Hayes, one by Disney’s Davy, Fess Parker) and cornering the market on coonskin caps. Hunnicutt more or less reprised the homespun persona that had gotten him a supporting Oscar nomination three years earlier for Howard Hawks’s The Big Sky, and though it was always very entertaining, even the most polite 6-year-olds had to be going “what the hell?” when Hunnicutt failed to conform to kids’ image of what Davy looked like. The truth, judging from old Crockett portraits, was probably somewhere amid the middle of both actors, though by this time, Parker’s good looks had cemented themselves into the frontier zeitgeist. After all, at one point Fess even graced the cover of a Confidential magazine from my youth that I recall carrying a headline that said something pretty close to, “Fess up, Fess; what did you do with that girl’s panties?” This just wasn’t going to happen to Arthur Hunnicutt.
At about 6-foot-5, Sterling Hayden plays (and not without stoic appeal) central character Jim Bowie, who’d also been the centerpiece of The Iron Mistress just three years earlier — it a Warner Bros. biopic starring Alan Ladd (maybe 5-foot-6). Richard Carlson, who’d recently battled the Creature From the Black Lagoon on screen and directed my favorite Rory Calhoun Western (Four Guns to the Border), is something of a stiff as Col. William Travis, with whom Command’s Bowie is often knocking heads. (By contrast, Laurence Harvey as Travis delivers the 1960 John Wayne version’s best performance.) Hayden was just coming back from the political Blacklist — commentator Thompson says he took the Bowie role to come off as more patriotic — while Carlson was in the midst of fighting TV communists on the syndicated espionage series “I Led 3 Lives,” which he presumably took at least a little seriously. So maybe there was some political tension in the air — or maybe they just followed Hunnicutt’s lead and asked, “Are there any beans left in the commissary?”
Italian soprano Anna Maria Alberghetti easily passes as Mexican providing a romantic angle the movie doesn’t need, and I thought she looked better sans heavy makeup in her final scene than in the rest of the picture. With just a couple ‘A’-ballpark pictures yet remaining in Republic’s existence (Ray Milland’s likable Lisbon and the wonderful rural family drama Come Next Spring), Yates did spend some money here. Gordon MacRae sings the title tune — the movie version of Oklahoma! was hitting theaters around the same time — and Gone With the Wind’s Max Steiner did the score as he would the following year for Spring, which managed to land Tony Bennett for its opening credits and finale. Kino Classics is performing a real movie junkie’s service by enabling these late Republics to be home-exhibited properly (via 4K scanning) for the first time since they played theaters, even for a generation that grew up with them on TV (they played incessantly from about 1957-63 on the CBS affiliate where I later worked for five years as a high schooler and college student). You can see why an A-team film enthusiast like Martin Scorsese was a major player in the two-part Republic series run at the Museum of Modern Art last year.
The voiceover from Thompson (who’s not just an Alamo scholar but a published Alamo-movie one) has a lot of info, and he never tries to pretend he knows more than he does unless his massive research can back it up conclusively. He rattles off such a large number of Alamo-related movies and TV shows of the era that I kind of sat back in my chair, though I should have remembered the Jim Bowie TV series with Scott Forbes, if only for a theme song that a lot of boomers can’t fully extricate from their brains. Scott Forbes is such a blast from the past that I looked him up — only to discover that he married a former Miss Alabama and later wrote the British play that on screen became 1967’s The Penthouse, which I recall as being one of the real screen sickos of its era. It probably would have been enough for penance-minded Texans to relegate him to a lifetime of bad burritos.