The Last Frontier (Columbia, 1955)
A slightly weaker Anthony Mann Western Prompted by a comment from reader Jean-Marie, I thought I’d say a word about another cavalry Western today. The Last Frontier is ‘important’ as being an Anthony Mann oater (the seventh of eleven or twelve, depending on your definition of a Western, and the second for Columbia). It stars Victor Mature and deals with the domination of the ‘noble savage’ and the notion that the true West is suffering from encroaching civilization, which will be the end of it. The characterization is unusual. It is essentially pessimistic - though this atmosphere is undermined by the risible 'happy ending'.
Opinion is divided as to its quality: some are complimentary about Mature’s acting - and indeed he could be surprisingly good in Westerns, notably My Darling Clementine (click the link for our review) in 1946, though Mann had a low opinion of his suitability to the genre. Others have praised the film’s slight quirkiness. The NativeAmerican website opines, “The cinematography is beautiful. The settings and issues are authentic. The film has great charm.” But Dennis Schwarz called it “offbeat and at times muddled” and Brian Garfield wrote that the movie was “trashy big-budget junk”. That was too harsh (Brian was not one to mince words).
At the time, Bosley Crowther in The New York Times described the complex plot and then wrote, “Frankly, we don't think anybody gets a decent deal, including the innocent people who pay to see this Cinema-Scope film. The story is so disordered and the color photography is so deliberately dim that the whole thing is thoroughly obscurist.”
I myself, for what that’s worth, certainly do not think it is trashy, but neither do I think it’s very good. It suffers from some poorly mounted knockabout comedy and there is, as I say, a highly inappropriate ending.
It was shot in CinemaScope and in Technicolor in Popocatécatl Volcano, Puebla, Mexico locations by William C Mellor of The Naked Spur and Bad Day at Black Rock fame, so is visually powerful, though is often too dark, in fact; Crowther was right on that. The screenplay is by Phillip Yordan (The Man from Laramie, Johnny Guitar, The Bravados, Broken Lance) and Russell S Hughes (Jubal) so it ought to have been good, and often is. And of course Mann directed it.
Yet it never really ‘gels’ and it remains, with Cimarron, the least satisfactory of Mann’s Westerns. Both Mann and Yordan had always looked down on cavalry Westerns and although they had finally decided to do one, perhaps it shows.
It’s a Civil War story, in the sense that it set during the war, but out West in a wild Wyoming outpost. The plot has the traditional cavalry Western element of a by-the-book Army colonel (Robert Preston) who is a stubborn fool, and a level-headed captain (Guy Madison, doing the occasional big-screen oater between seasons of the TV Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok) who finally prevails. Naturally, the free-spirited trapper hero Jed Cooper (Mature) falls for the colonel’s wife (Anne Bancroft), to provide love interest. Been there, done that. Yet it has subtlety, and the essential theme is the ‘civilizing’ of the wild man, but this applies more to the white mountain-man Jed than to the Indians under Red Cloud (Manuel Dondé). Jed is tamed and domesticated, which arouses mixed emotions in the audience.
Mann was famously interested in landscape and the visual composition of his pictures. Even the titles reflect that and it may not be too fanciful to suggest that just as The Far Country set the tale of a hard and cold man in the frozen north of the title and Bend of the River described a turning point in the life of a man putting behind his past in a distant land, so The Last Frontier told of a free frontier spirit finally being tamed by 'civilization'. The very first shot shows an idyllic (i.e. wild) scene of trees, sky and mountains, then the camera drops to show a stolid little fort - paradise has been invaded. This is really the message.
Of course so many Western movie titles concerned The Last – well, you name it, really, The Last Challenge, Command, Frontier, Hard Men, Horseman, Hunt, Posse, and so on ad pretty well infinitum, and this reflected the strong nostalgic strain of ‘the end of the West’ which marked Westerns from the very beginning of the genre, as we were reflecting on recently (click here for that).
Jed, Gus and Mungo (the latter two played by James Whitmore and Pat Hogan) are a sympathetic trio of trappers who are robbed of a year’s worth of pelts by the Sioux, who are angry at incursions of the US Army. The mountain men seek redress at the fort and are recruited by Captain Riordan (Madison) as scouts.
The colonel’s wife (Bancroft) is, as was also traditional, at first snooty and stand-offish but is gradually wooed by Jed’s energy and naïf charm. Her martinet husband, a sort of Colonel Thursday figure (for Fort Apache fans), is thought dead but then turns up and assumes command, catastrophically.
Though seduced by the fine uniform, Jed is insubordinate and drunk, and hated by Sergeant Decker (Peter Whitney). There is an epic fight between the two, much of it on the roof, shot from below.
The uniform is key, in fact. Jed yearns for it, and it symbolizes his acceptance into 'civilized' society. Bancroft tells her husband, "I married a man, not a uniform." Preston replies, "I am not a man without this." Later, the blue jacket is taken from Jed. "You're not fit to wear a uniform and you never will be," says Madison. It is a crisis point for the wild man. In one telling scene the colonel falls into a bear pit and is stuck in the enclosed, dark and confined space while Jed stands tall and free against the sky, mocking him. But it doesn't last: the free spirit is soon to be confined too. Actually, Jed is quite bearlike. At one point he says of Bancroft, "She looks at me as if I were a bear," and his pal Whitmore replies, "There's some comfort in bein' a bear in bear country."
There is a battle with the Indians, Jed heroically saves the day and the colonel is killed. Interestingly, when the Indians look like carrying the day, Whitmore's character shouts, "Back to the trees!" but Jed cries out, "Back to the fort!" This provokes the weak happy-ever-after ending, out of kilter with the rest of the film. Jed is seen, in blue jacket, saluting the flag as Bancroft waits for him. Mann said that the ending was forced on him.
Though la Bancroft is not at her best, Preston was reliably excellent (even if his part is a bit overwritten/overwrought) and as for matinee idol/sword & sandal hero Mature, he does a good job with an at times iffy script.
A word in favor of James Whitmore as the father figure old-timer who perishes unnecessarily: he was damn good in Westerns, I reckon.
Madison less so: he always seemed a bit bland somehow. But maybe it’s just me.
So The Last Frontier is a mixed bag. It certainly does not have the raw power and intensity of the Mann/James Stewart Westerns, or indeed the first Mann one, Devil's Doorway, with Robert Taylor. It has weaknesses but it provokes thought and has real qualities too. Definitely worth a try, but don’t expect too much.
We might look at a couple more cavalry Westerns before returning to our Ernest Haycox thread. I’m rather into Ernest at the moment.