September 17, 2018
Available via Warner Archive;
Stars Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Lloyd Nolan, Debra Paget, Russ Tamblyn.
To Western lovers, 1956 is synonymous with The Searchers, but there was a pretty fair bumper crop from all directions. Budd Boetticher’s 7 Men from Now comes immediately to mind, I’ve always been partial to Donna Reed’s cool cowgirl duds in Backlash (especially the hat), and there were a couple underrated Delmer Daves achievements (The Last Wagon and Jubal, though the latter did rate a Criterion treatment five years ago). For embracers of the “big tent” theory, we had the definitive screen “Texan” with Giant, and those with a taste for the outrageous could go with Martin & Lewis in Pardners, Elvis in Love Me Tender (a Civil War aftermath pic, but the future King was riding a horse) and Guy Madison bringing a dinosaur to the chuckwagon in The Beast From Hollow Mountain. I even once had a poster for Tony Martin in the same year’s Quincannon, Frontier Scout hanging on my office wall, but I will not go there. (Though if Tony could later record for Motown, why not?; it was good enough for Albert Finney.)
Into this mix and adapted from a highly regarded novel by Milton Lott came MGM’s The Last Hunt — respectable, engrossing and a movie that didn’t deserve to be another of production chief Dore Schary’s box office disappointments, particularly given what the crew but especially the cast had to go through (because they were in winter apparel). An epic about the decimation of buffalo that combines on-location CinemaScope panoramas with disfiguringly obvious outdoor sets, a lot of it took place during what the script claimed were frigid temperatures but were actually the toughest 110-degree weather that South Dakota could provide. Co-lead Stewart Granger endangered his health with the heat, and I’m almost surprised that Robert Taylor didn’t have what certainly looks like hair dye running down his forehead.
This is no knock on the somewhat underrated Taylor, who gets top-billing with his very atypical villain’s role as a guy who, in addition to hating Indians and slaughtering buffalo, isn’t too bright and is sometimes challenged by grammar. He also treats women badly, drinks too much and thinks little of shooting people at will. Equally well cast as Taylor’s partner/adversary is Granger, who reluctantly gets back into buffalo-hunting after his hopes of becoming a cattleman are dashed by his dead cattle (which will do it) Rounding out the principals are an unlikely Debra Paget as a Native American with child (a high-profile year for the actress, with Love Me Tender and The Ten Commandments still to come); Russ Tamblyn as an even more unlikely half-Indian who’s trying to assimilate (though, as ever, Tamblyn remains an appealing screen presence); and Lloyd Nolan as an affable, one-legged old coot of a jug-swigging buffalo skinner. After a long period on the road rolling steel balls on stage as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, this was Nolan’s first feature in three years. He is terrific and, as ever, malleable; compare him here to his performance as town-conscience Doc Swain in the movie of Peyton Place the very next year.
Schary got Richard Brooks to adapt and write after the latter skyrocketed MGM into the rock-and-roll era with Blackboard Jungle, a movie that still gives me the willies whenever I flash on the fate of Richard Kiley’s 78 collection. We even see them together in one of two Blu-ray excerpts from the old “MGM Parade” show that George Murphy hosted during my TV youth, a vehicle designed to promote the pictures the studio was about to put in theaters (Tamblyn shows up in the other included segment). This was an ambitious picture that didn’t quite live up to turnstile hopes because, in part, Taylor’s box office potency was fading — though he’d last longer at MGM than even Gable and Tracy and go out on a lurid favorite of mine: Party Girl. Meanwhile, Granger never quite caught on in America the way he deserved (when I asked Martin Scorsese in an interview which old-school actors he most would have liked to have directed, he said James Mason and Granger, and may even have listed Granger first).
Still, The Last Hunt is a fast-mover with Russell (Red River, Hatari!) cinematography of real buffalo being “thinned out” — a process that was all on the up-and-up because the filmmakers were allowed to capture an official government reduction of herds, which had to be done periodically. The climax is capped by a chilling shot that even got to me when I saw the picture (for the first time) on NBC’s old “Saturday Night at the Movies” weekly viewing ritual, albeit in a presentation that hardly approached the one here. The Blu-ray’s stereo track has some punch, though even with a magnifying glass, I couldn’t read the damned specs on the back of the disc jacket (a bad layout habit that too many distributors have picked up). The image also has a lot less of the mud we’ve all seen in other mid-’50s Eastman Color MGMs, maybe due to all that bright sunlight from those impossible South Dakota location temperatures. I only wish the Warner Archive Blu-ray of my much beloved but Eastman-plagued It’s Always Fair Weather looked as satisfactory.