I love the complexity of westerns from the 1950s. Moreover, I love the fact that this complexity could be contained within the framework of relatively simple and compact stories and still lose nothing in the telling. Take Last Train from Gun Hill (1959): on the face of it we have a fairly standard pursuit and revenge tale, yet it successfully tackles the themes of racism, loyalty (both to friends and to family), justice and the father/son dynamic. Not only that, but it wraps the whole thing up in a run time of an hour and a half or thereabouts. The result is tight, intense moviemaking that draws you in from the very first shot and only relinquishes its grip when the final credits roll.
Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) is a US Marshal with a Cherokee bride and a young son. Within minutes of the opening Morgan’s wife has been assaulted, raped and murdered by two young thugs. This is a brutal and shocking way to begin any story, and despite the camera mercifully cutting away none of its power is diminished. The point is further hammered home when Morgan arrives to survey the terrible aftermath, horror, sorrow and outrage all flitting across his features. Morgan’s grief is compounded by his realisation that a saddle left behind at the scene of the crime points the finger of guilt at an old friend and comrade Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn). Morgan doesn’t for one moment believe that Belden himself could have been directly involved in this heinous act, but the presence of the saddle means some member of his entourage must have been. The sting in the tail comes from the fact that the chief culprit is Belden’s son and heir Rick (Earl Holliman), a spoilt and inadequate young man living hopelessly in his father’s shadow. The perverse and damaging nature of this father/son relationship is eloquently summed up in a short scene at Belden’s ranch house. When the foreman ribs the boy about the reason for a cut on his face Belden goads him into fighting for the honour of the family name – Rick is soundly beaten, causing humiliation to him and disappointment to his father. When Morgan learns the truth the scene is set for a confrontation between the two old friends. The bonds between the two men are strong but the events that have taken place put an intolerable strain on them. Morgan is determined to take Rick back to stand trial while Belden is equally determined to stop him. As Morgan and his prisoner wait in a cramped hotel room for the arrival of the last train, Belden and his men lay siege outside. There’s more than a passing resemblance to Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma at this point, although Rick lacks the charm of Ben Wade and Morgan’s personal loss lends him more inflexibility than Dan Evans. As the clock ticks inexorably towards the arrival of that last train the pressure mounts on Morgan, and the issue is raised of whether he too might have to face the same situation as Belden somewhere down the line – for Morgan (like his former friend) is now a widower faced with the unenviable task of trying to raise a boy alone.
John Sturges always knew how to shoot an action scene and there can be no complaints on that score here. However, this movie isn’t a string of back to back shoot-em-up set pieces, and it’s sometimes forgotten how good Sturges was at coaxing strong performances from his cast. Both Douglas and Quinn give convincing portraits of men unaccustomed to ceding ground to anyone and torn between conflicting loyalties. The few scenes where they actually share the screen are a pleasure to watch – the initial meeting at the ranch when both men realize who really killed Morgan’s wife, and what the consequences must inevitably be, contains some marvellous work with an enormous amount of feeling conveyed simply through subtle glances. As good as Quinn is, Douglas steals the show with his grim determination and suppressed fury boiling just below the surface. He’s playing a man for whom respect for the law and the badge he carries is paramount, even to the extent that his own personal grief is subordinated to duty. There are only two occasions when his professionalism is allowed to slip momentarily, both triggered by racial slurs directed at his murdered wife. The first is a reflexive burst of physical violence against a local loudmouth. The second, however, is merely vocal but has a sadistic quality that is quite chilling – his deliberate and detailed description to a shackled and cowed Rick of how the judicial process that will lead to his certain death will be as slow and protracted as any Indian execution is the only time he permits himself to savour the taste of revenge.
Earl Holliman played Rick as a whining, craven creature who never elicits the least sympathy from the viewer. This seems to be largely down to the writing, and if any particular criticism is to be made of the film it’s that Rick’s character is just too unlikeable. If there had been something even vaguely attractive about him it would have added yet another layer to the story, but that’s really just nitpicking on my part. Carolyn Jones has the only female role in the movie (not counting the extremely brief appearance by Morgan’s wife) as the on/off lover of Belden. Aside from providing a counter to all the machismo on display, she occupies (for most of the film at least) a place similar to that of the viewer i.e. watching from the sidelines while feeling some sympathy for both the protagonists. In the end, it’s her respect for Morgan and his motivation, and her disillusionment with Belden and his son’s brutality, that leads to the decisive shift in the balance of power.
The R1 DVD from Paramount has Last Train from Gun Hill looking just great. The vistavision elements have been transferred beautifully at 1.78:1 anamorphic, with colours looking rich and saturated. I can’t say I noticed any damage or flaws worth mentioning and the image is sharp and detailed. There are no extras whatsoever on the disc, and that’s a pity as this is a movie that would seem to be just begging for an intelligent commentary track. This is a movie – like many by Sturges in fact – that knows how to keep the tension simmering and the viewer hooked. There’s no preaching or tiresome moralising yet the messages are all communicated clearly and seamlessly without impeding the narrative or the entertainment. In short, it’s a high class film.