“The Last Hunt” (1956) is a superior western and contains what is probably Robert Taylor’s finest performance.
With that statement, it’s possible I’ve already lost some readers, as Robert Taylor seems to be among the most lambasted figures from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Many think he is as dull as dishwater and is among the most wooden, one-note and transparent performers from that period. (I suspect his biggest critics are Barbara Stanwyck fans, and those who can’t forgive him for being a friendly witness to the House Un-American Activities Committee).
Some people may really think Taylor was a terrible actor, and they are entitled to their opinion. But the hatred for him seems way out of proportion. Dan Callahan, in his recent book on Barbara Stanwyck, is particularly harsh on Taylor.
But the Movie Corner has always been, and always will be, an avid Robert Taylor supporter, though I think his post-war career was far more interesting and varied than his pre-war work. There were some good assignments at the first half of his career at M-G-M, but there was also far too much fluff in movies like “Personal Property” (1937), “Remember?” (1939) and “Lady in the Tropics” (1939).
(I think Vivien Leigh exhibits more chemistry with Taylor in “Waterloo Bridge” (1940) than she does with Clark Gable in “Gone with the Wind” (1939), but don’t tell anyone I said that).
In many of these M-G-M assignments he was asked to stand around and look uncommonly handsome. But watch him in tougher roles from the same time frame, like the boxer in “The Crowd Roars” (1938) and the western “Stand Up and Fight” (1939). There’s a little more fire there, more enthusiasm, as if he wants to break out of the pretty boy formula roles forced on him by Louis B. Mayer. (Taylor was among the most loyal employees M-G-M ever had, never turning down or questioning a role. He was also the longest-tenured contract player in the history of M-G-M.)
Like his compatriots Tyrone Power, Clark Gable and James Stewart, Taylor served his country during World War II and came back a more mature and guarded figure. The looks and bearing had coarsened, and despite the best efforts of Hollywood’s make-up wizards, they couldn’t hide what these men had experienced during the war. It’s as if they aged a decade in two years.
Taylor’s post-war career gave him a strong number of really good films, but he was never better than in “The Last Hunt”, where Taylor plays what is probably his most out-and-out villainous role – a mean, sadistic and racist buffalo hunter who takes immense pride in slaughtering buffalo He’s genuinely great in it, and he certainly should have been remembered at Oscar time.
I’m thinking that when “The Last Hunt” opened in 1956, it was pretty startling to audiences used to more traditional westerns. Written and directed by the underrated Richard Brooks (from a novel by Milton Lott) “The Last Hunt” is an adult western in the best sense, with a cast of distinct characters each bringing different dimensions to the table. Because they’re by themselves during hunting season, there’s plenty of opportunities for the contrasts to come to the forefront.
Robert Taylor is Charlie, who starts off mean and only gets meaner as the movie goes on. He partners with the easy-going Sandy McKenzie (Stewart Granger), who grew up among the Indians and respects their traditions. He hunts for the money the buffalo hides will bring him, but takes no pleasure in the slaughter, unlike Charlie.
The always-great Lloyd Nolan plays Wonderfoot, a peglegged skinner who is the best in the territory. He’s realistic about life and harbors no grudges against anything. Russ Tamblyn is Jimmy O’Brien, a half-breed who questions his identity and place in the world, and is an easy target for the Indian-hating Charlie.
“The Last Hunt” was filmed on location in the scenic grandeur of the Black Hills and the Badlands, and while the vistas are magnificent, what plays against it is anything but.
Almost unbearable to watch today are the scenes of the buffalo hunting. According to a disclaimer at the beginning, the scenes of the buffalo being killed are real, and were committed by actual sharpsmen hired by the government for the annual thinning of the herd. It’s hard to watch, especially in one scene, played in relative close up, where a white buffalo (sacred to the Indians) is killed by Charlie. It looks painfully real.
What else riveted audiences to their 1956 seats? There’s also a scene where Charlie utters, twice, the phrase “I’ll be damned.” Hardly eyebrow-raising now, but it must have startled audiences at the time.
There’s also a scene where Sandy rubs manure over an Indian brave’s wounds to help cauterize them. The towns in the movie also don’t resemble sterilized western towns from other films of the era, but look like the dirty, dingy places they really were, with small, ramshackle buildings separated by muddy streets. The saloon girls don’t look anything like Ann Sheridan in “Dodge City” (1939), but tired, worn out and defeated by life.
But it’s the dynamics on display here that are the most interesting. Taylor’s character despises Indians, and when an Indian girl (Debra Paget) becomes part of their camp, accompanied by a young child, when a brave she is traveling with is killed by Charlie, his hatred only intensifies.
Paget’s character is never given a name, which seems pretty demeaning, but I think Brooks is saying something more. To many in the west at the time, Indians weren’t people at all, and not worthy of a name. (I don’t know if the character has a name in the novel. I started to read it, but couldn’t get through it. There’s only so many pages describing buffalo skinning one can read).
Charlie’s feelings about Indians intensify when he’s around the Indian girl. It’s also obvious he’s sexually attracted to her even as he hurls insults about her people. There’s a scene where they’re laying next to each other on the ground, and he’s this close to having his way with her, and I’m still not sure how that got past the censors at the time.
Paget’s casting in the role would criticized today, but it was a smart move by M-G-M. Paget had played an Indian maiden in one of the biggest western hits of the entire decade in “Broken Arrow” (1950), and later again in “White Feather” (1955). She’s very good in the role, but as my readers know some of my likes by now, in my mind Debra Paget can do no wrong, and she can be cast in any role at all. Heck, they could have cast her as Father Flanagan, and it wouldn’t faze me at all.
All the actors are fine, but it’s really Taylor who shines. His contempt for humanity is evident in every scene, and when he does soften a bit towards the end, it’s too late. His comeuppance is one of the most unusual I’ve ever seen, and it has stuck with me through the years from the first time I saw it.
Even when he isn’t playing as morally complex a character as Charlie Gilson, there’s just something I’ve always liked about Robert Taylor. True, he may not be the versatile actor out there, but I just enjoy watching him. A sturdy, agreeable presence, if he was rarely great, he was never bad, and was often good. I would rather watch a Robert Taylor movie over some of his more celebrated colleagues, and I was surprised to see how many of his movies I have in my DVD collection. Let the cynics complain, and make fun of his real name (Spangler Arlington Brugh), but I will always beat the Robert Taylor drum, proudly and loudly.