Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Last Hunt

“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.


Patti said...

Hi, Kevin, I found your post through the CMBA Facebook page. Given that I am a Robert Taylor fan, too, I HAD to stop by.

I have often said that Mr. Taylor could be my grandfather...he and my paternal grandfather were born exactly 3 days apart. So, there I am, crushing on my grandfather!!

I preferred his matured, ruggedly handsome looks of the late 40's and 50's to his pretty boy looks of the 30's.

I have never seen this movie, and even though I'm not a huge Western fan, I will put this on the 'want to watch' list, as I always love seeing brilliant performances. Have you seen him in Bataan and Above and Beyond (both are war films). I thought he was terrific in both of them.

Kevin Deany said...

Hi Patti: Thanks for stopping by. Yes, I am a big fan of both those films, and until I saw "The Last Hunt" I thought his best performance was in "Above and Beyond." He's really good in that one, a very underrated film.

Laura said...

As someone who's become a huge fan of the underrated Taylor in recent years, I really enjoyed and appreciated your post. I haven't seen THE LAST HUNT yet -- I think I'm steeling myself to watch him in such a villainous role. Like Patti, I prefer his postwar look, and his acting in films such as HIGH WALL, ROGUE COP, ABOVE AND BEYOND, PARTY GIRL, and especially WESTWARD THE WOMEN was really excellent. It's a shame there are some people out there who apparently let politics or other issues get in the way of seeing what's actually there on screen.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on what sounds like a very different film, especially for the era in which it was made.

Best wishes,

R. D. Finch said...

Kevin, I haven't seen this although I've been intrigued and nearly watched it a couple of times when it aired on TCM. You made the film sound well worth watching. I found your comments about how war service visibly aged the actors who served in WWII most perceptive. I've noticed this myself in actors like James Stewart and Clark Gable. I thought Taylor became a more interesting actor after the war. Maybe that was in part because he'd outgrown the "pretty boy" roles and become a more rugged character actor. Earlier in his career he never struck me as an action actor like Tyrone Power or Errol Flynn, but I especially like him in the postwar Westerns I've seen him in. Two that come immediately to mind are "The Devil's Doorway" and "Westward the Women." Another thing you discussed that made this film sound especially good was the level of realism in its sets, locations, and other details.

Caftan Woman said...

"He’s genuinely great in it, and he certainly should have been remembered at Oscar time." The Academy has always seemed to believe that when an actor puts on a cowboy hat, he's no longer an actor. Westerns contain so many great performances.

I thought I was pretty noncommittal on Taylor until a few years ago when I had a week that included "Devil's Doorway" and "Saddle the Wind". He broke my heart in "Devil's Doorway". In "Saddle the Wind" his steady and assured performance was masterful next to John Cassavetes Actor's Studio shenanigans as young hothead. I wanted to give Taylor a hug of gratitude and have been solidly in his corner ever since.

Those buffalo slaughter scenes are awfully hard to take, but "The Last Hunt" is such a worthwhile film.

Wonderful article.

Kevin Deany said...

Laura, I'm very fond of "Westward teh Women" as well, along with those other films, "High Wall" especially.

R.D., I think you would like "The Last Hunt". "The Devil's Doorway" is one of the great pro-Indian movies. Taylor is exceptional in the role. There's another western from the same year, 1950, called "Ambush", and while its not nearly as good as "The Devil's Doorway", Taylor is rugged and gives a very forceful performance. It's easy to see why he was so popular with audiences.

CW, "Saddle the Wind" is really good, and I also think Taylor more than holds his own with Cassavettes. Another Taylor western I enjoyed, "The Law and Jake Wade" teams him with Richard Widmark, and there's another case where Taylor's sincerity plays very well against the more flamboyant Widmark.

Thanks for all for writing.

Silver Screenings said...

Taylor has turned in some great performances including "Waterloo Bridge" and "Westward the Women". I thoroughly enjoyed your post and your support of this much-maligned actor.

The Lady Eve said...

I haven't followed Robert Taylor's career that closely, though I've always liked him very much in "Waterloo Bridge" (and I agree with you on his and Vivien Leigh's chemistry) and thought he was excellent in "The Last Hunt." Really a fine performance. Hard to take those buffalo hunt scenes, though.

Your comment about the dramatic change in the appearance and bearing of the great stars (Power, Gable, Stewart, Taylor and others) who served in WWII is so true. I read somewhere not long ago that Power was in Hiroshima after the bomb was dropped. God knows what other horrors these men must've experienced during the war.

Kevin Deany said...

Silverscreenings, thank you for writing. I like those performances you mentioned, as well as some of the noir dramas, like "Rogue Cop" and "Party Girl."

Eve, watching those buffalo hunting scenes made me wish there was CGI back then.

Page said...

Hi Kev!
I wasn't aware that Taylor had been given the boring or mediocre actor label. (I live in a bubble!) But now that you mention it, I've never watched any of his films and left thinking, "Wow, Taylor was brilliant in that!" I guess I've never minded him and I'll leave it at that.

While at my parents a couple of weeks ago there was a Taylor film on and I stopped and stared at him for a moment then told my parents that his jet black, slicked back hair with that widows peak was so distracting and that I was thrilled as my widows peak isn't nearly as bad. ha ha He looked like Dracula too me in that film. I just don't recall what it was. (Robert Taylor for ya.)

Because you enjoyed this western so much and I trust your opinion on our stars and their performances I'm going to look for this film and give it a go, Kev. I'll let you know what I think. I'm sure you will be waiting her with bated breath. ha ha

Thanks for another thoughtful and honest review.

Kevin Deany said...

Page, always happy to hear from you, and let me know what you think if you ever see "The Last Hunt."

Yeah, there's a lot of Robert Taylor hatred out there (not from CMBA members, I hasten to add). He seems to generate hatred more than a lot of other Golden Age stars. I'm happy to come to his defense.

(As for me, being folically challenged since I was a senior in high school, I can only fantasize about having a widow's peak). I can't think what movie he had that look in, perhaps one of his 1930s titles.