Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Last Hunt

The Last Hunt (Richard Brooks, 1956) Writer-director Brooks followed up his urban drama Blackboard Jungle with this film far afield of JD's and ghetto schools, out into the wide open spaces. But people are still being buffaloed.

Stewart Granger plays Sandy McKenzie, a hunter sick of killing and looking to get out and do something else. He's approached by Charlie Gilson (Robert Taylor) with a business proposition—going into the buffalo pelt business. It's too tempting for the expert marksman (he has a sight on his rifle) to pass up. The beasts are a renewable resource, after all, and their hides bring in a sizable profit from the trading companies, guaranteeing that Sandy can retire. And they're so plentiful on the plains, the volume of them will make a quick killing in greenbacks, and they'll make a fine trading material for the natives to provide food, horses and supplies. There's no down-side. The two set out with the company of leathery skinner Woodfoot (Lloyd Nolan, given a chance to play something beyond his dependable world-weary professional) and half-native apprentice Jimmy O'Brien (Russ Tamblyn, whiter than white) to the wilds of what-will-soon-be South Dakota to make a considerable killing. 
Things go well for awhile.  It becomes a competition between the two hunters over who can drop the most beasts. And Gilson isn't content until he has wiped out entire herds. The movie encapsulates the wholesale slaughter of what used to constitute rivers of beef across the plains—an example of the profilgate short-sightedness of the western expansion, of the desire to make a fast buck, even while littering the landscape with corpses.
But the competitiveness turns to needling, more than knives get under skins, and the two hunters begin bickering, Gilson riding McKenzie and the other keeping his own simmering counsel. It's clear their motivations are incompatible. Things come to a head when Gilson's personal ambitions run afoul of anybody but himself to an increasing degree, first irritating Gilson by killing a local hunting party—he doesn't like the competition—and taking possession of the surviving woman (Debra Paget, whiter than white) and her son, and then horrifying the local natives by taking down and skinning a white buffalo, sacred to the tribe. 
Granger is properly (and typically, for his roles) stalwart, but Taylor gets the rare opportunity to play a genuine asshole, a portrayal he seems to relish as it's done with more energy than he exhibited in his more heroic roles in such films as Quo Vadis?, Ivanhoe, and Knights of the Round Table. He certainly doesn't try to hedge his character's avarice by trying to make him in any way sympathetic. It's also good to see Lloyd Nolan in a character part of some distance from his crusty, trusty Irishman (at least he's not cast as Native). It's Brooks at his best (despite the casting compromises), bringing a subtle message underneath the black and white morality on the surface.
Debra Paget's "Native Girl" doesn't even have a name.

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