The Last Wagon

There she lies…as far into the west as your eyes can see, and then some – The Canyon of Death. The Indians say you can hear cries in the night down there that you’ll hear all your life…usually it’s only the wind.

The more I watch Delmer Daves’ westerns, the higher they rise in my estimation. As a body of work, they work on so many levels and manage to weave a variety of themes into their plots. In terms of basic structure, The Last Wagon (1956) has a simple and straightforward plot – a tough outsider uses his knowledge of the frontier to lead a group of greenhorns to safety. Yet within this fairly standard framework, there are a number of interesting elements vying for the viewer’s attention. The film can be enjoyed as a kind of outdoor survivalist epic; however, it’s also a critique of race and prejudice, a celebration of the positive influence of women, a revenge tale, and ultimately a journey towards redemption. Above all though, and this is the case with most of Daves’ pictures, there is an overriding sense of optimism that pervades the movie. In short, and characteristic of the best westerns of the 50s, it’s an affirmation of the essentially positive aspects of human nature, making it a very American film.

It’s Arizona in 1873, and a rider makes his way down towards a river. The camera pulls back to reveal another figure, a rifleman clad in buckskins concealed on the near bank. He calmly takes aim and drops the rider before wading across to confirm his kill. This dramatic pre-credits sequence introduces Comanche Todd (Richard Widmark) in ambiguous terms – is this silent, ruthless killer the hunter or the hunted? It’s soon established that he falls into the latter category, a fugitive being pursued by a relentless posse. Still, Todd is no hapless or helpless victim – he’s an accomplished survivor, having been raised by and lived among the Comanche for twenty years. Nevertheless, he’s not some invulnerable superhuman either, and soon finds himself the bound captive of a brutal sheriff (George Mathews), the last of the posse members. Now all this is just a build-up to the main events of the story, which kick in when the two men cross paths with a wagon train of settlers. In one of the most memorable images from the movie, Todd finds himself shackled to the spokes of a wagon wheel as the settlers reluctantly agree to allow the sheriff and his prisoner to accompany them. Todd’s presence stirs a mixed reaction; the hero-worship of a young boy (Tommy Rettig), a vague attraction in the kid’s elder sister and guardian (Felicia Farr), and bitter resentment among two half sisters – one of whom is part Indian (Susan Kohner) and the other (Stephanie Griffin) a spoiled and overt racist. All of these elements are explored and probed more deeply after disaster befalls the camp. While the young people sneak off for a midnight swim, an Apache raiding party descends on the settlers and kills everyone. Everyone except Todd, whose wagon they roll over a cliff with him still attached. Miraculously, the plunge doesn’t kill him and leaves him in a position to take charge of the frightened and confused group of young people. It’s now down to this wanted killer to lead his raw companions through the Canyon of Death, and on to safety. Aside from the ever-present danger, Todd’s progress is made more difficult by the suspicion of the group and their internal wrangling. What’s more, every step closer to salvation for the youngsters brings Todd nearer a date with the hangman.

As I said back at the beginning, one of the notable features of much of Delmer Daves’ work is its optimism. I’ve mentioned before a tendency in Daves’ films towards endings that can appear weak in relation to what has preceded. However, as a result of some discussions we’ve had on this site, I’ve been reassessing this position. If Daves’ films are viewed as pieces whose aim is to project a positive take on humanity, then the relatively upbeat endings make a lot more sense and actually fit the narrative thrust better. Additionally, and I’m referring particularly to the westerns here, Daves’ best films are all from the 50s, and this progression towards a positive resolution for his anti-heroic protagonists mirrors the general trend in the genre during that decade. In The Last Wagon, Todd starts out as a man driven on by his thirst for revenge against those who destroyed his family. Although he’s never fully drawn back to white society, he is offered a new perspective on life. It’s the combination of a boy’s devotion and loyalty, and the burgeoning love of a girl that maps out a more hopeful future for him. It’s only through his acknowledgment of these two factors that Todd is able to seek out and achieve the personal redemption that gives meaning to the story. From a purely technical point of view, Daves’ work on The Last Wagon is as good as anything he did. The director, along with cameraman Wilfrid Cline, shot the film almost exclusively on location in Arizona, and the use of landscape is spectacular at times. There are many instances of wide, long shots looking down on and across the vast expanses dotted with canyons and buttes. These shots emphasize both the freedom of the country, and also the isolation and relative insignificance of the characters. It all makes for a wonderful contrast with the tight, intimate feeling conveyed by the scenes showing the group interacting whenever they stop to make camp.

As far as performances are concerned, the film really belongs to both Widmark and Felicia Farr. What is most remarkable about Widmark’s playing in The Last Wagon is his physicality. For an actor whose distinctive voice and looks are such a large part of his repertoire, Widmark made less use of them hereย  than in his other movies. Instead, it’s his cat-like grace and spatial awareness that are to the fore. One would expect a man who has lived his adult life in harmony with the wilderness to appear comfortable and almost at one with his natural surroundings. Such is the case with Widmark as he pads round soundlessly and deftly skips across the rocks and sand. Widmark brought a genuine physical confidence to this role, and his fight scenes – especially his duel, using knife and manacle, with two Apache warriors – have a ring of authenticity to them. On top of that, there’s a raw frankness that Widmark achieves in his scenes together with Felicia Farr. The actress made three films for Delmer Daves, and the quality of the work she did makes me regret they hadn’t collaborated more. In westerns, femininity is seen as a civilizing force, balancing masculine individualism and aggression, and Daves was very good at highlighting this vital aspect. As in her other two films for the director, Farr plays a pivotal role in drawing out the hero and humanizing him. Daves seemed to have a knack for tapping into Farr’s strengths and mining her attractive vulnerability. Just like in Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma, Farr’s intimate scenes with the hero are poignant and beautifully memorable.

While the central character of Comanche Todd, and his deep respect for native ways, plays a large part in getting the anti-racist message of the movie across, it’s by no means the only one. Perhaps equally important are the roles of Susan Kohner and Stephanie Griffin. The latter’s open hostility towards her half-sister, based purely on her disdain for her Indian blood, exposes the ugliness that is only disguised by her superficial beauty. Again, the redemptive nature of the western story is emphasized through the gradual transformation of this hate fueled character into a more human and understanding figure by the end. In contrast to Griffin’s naked bigotry, Kohner is the very epitome of dignity and self-deprecation. If Griffin’s character develops in an interesting way, then Kohner’s goes on an equally fascinating journey. It’s through her character, more so even than Widmark’s, that the whole question of identity is addressed. The point being made in the movie is the importance of pride in oneself, and the crucial fact that one can be proud without allowing apparently conflicting social identities to displace each other.

The Last Wagon has been widely available on DVD in most territories for some time now. I have the US release from Fox, and it features a fine anamorphic scope transfer. The disc is one of those odd, from my perspective at least, ones which has the widescreen version on one side and a pan & scan copy on the other. Personally, I see 4:3 versions of scope movies as redundant and can’t really understand the need to include them. Extra features amount to a series of galleries and a selection of trailers for other Fox westerns. The movie comes from Delmer Daves’ strongest period, when he could hardly put a foot wrong, and has to rate among his best work. Like all the best films, The Last Wagon works fine if viewed simply as a piece of entertainment. However, its real strength is the way, as all great westerns do, it turns the focus on other issues and themes, and so encourages the viewer to think. The fact that both Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma are about to get released on Blu-ray by Criterion brought this film back to my attention –ย  I’d love to think those releases might lead to a critical and popular reappraisal of the strengths of Delmer Daves in particular and the western in general.

63 thoughts on “The Last Wagon

  1. Yeah, this is one entertaining oater. I always enjoyed Richard Widmark as the hero in a western. His villains were always memorable, don’t get me wrong. But when he applied his talents in these roles, they invariably worked in that unique Widmark way. Fine review, Colin.


    • Thanks Michael. I like that this movie is quite ambiguous as what kind of man Widmark is at the beginning. We see him bushwhacking and killing members of the posse and don’t know anything about him at this point. It’s only as the story moves along that we learn his background and the motives for his actions. It makes the character more interesting and the initial suspicions of the settlers more understandable.


  2. I remember seeing The Last Wagon in its proper Cinemascope ratio for the first time when the U.S. DVD came out. Although I had seen the film many times before then on TV over the years, it was like seeing it fresh. A wonderful western and you’ve got to the heart of it in your review Colin.
    I have always felt that we saw too little of Felicia Farr as as actress. Every film I’ve seen her in, she has been memorable.


    • Hi Dafydd. I would have first seen The Last Wagon P&S too, as I remember catching it a few times on TV when I was a kid. I couldn’t imagine watching it any other way than in scope now though.

      I’m a huge fan of Ms Farr – her three movies with Daves handed her ideal roles and she really lights up the screen. I think she was excellent with Audie Murphy in Hell Bent for Leather too. And yes, I agree, it’s a great pity we didn’t see this wonderful, soulful actress in more movies.


  3. A wonderful Western and you speak well for it as usual. I’m really glad to see you taking up for Delmer Daves, who I agree is one of the genre’s great directors. I pretty much agree that at least most of his best films are Westerns made in the 1950s but I think a few others before and after rate well, especially The Red House, which you wrote appreciatively about earlier, and to an extent, Pride of the Marines. Still, his getting steadily into Westerns in its best decade was a blessing. By the way, a very little seen Daves movie, Return of the Texan (1952) is not strictly a Western, more of a marginal one because it’s a contemporary story, but it fits in well with his Westerns and I wish would be more widely seen. White Feather (1955) had Daves as a writer and may have been his project originally but was directed by Robert D. Webb; it too is excellent, resonates in Daves’ own filmography, and is perhaps Webb’s own best effort.

    I never make a secret that Widmark is one of my favorite actors and it does seem to me he is one of those whose work holds up best, and over a wide range of films and roles–his Westerns alone, just thinking of the period from Yellow Sky to Cheyenne Autumn, show him playing characters from villain to hero with many shades in between, and he’s equally good in all those roles. It really made me happy when you included him among your top ten Westerns stars, as I also would.

    I also feel the same way about Felicia Farr, but Colin, there is one thing you mischaracterize just a little about Daves and Farr in this piece. It is true that with each of Farr’s characters in the three films, she has a positive effect on a male character and brings out the best in him, but in only two of the three films is this the “hero.” In 3:10 to Yuma, the hero is Van Heflin; Glenn Ford is the villain. It’s one measure of that film’s greatness that throughout the Felicia Farr part of the movie (haunting in its brevity and once seen, never to be forgotten), one doesn’t think of him as a villain, but rather as a tender lover, so sensitive to the feelings of the woman and communing with her in so rich and deep a way. Humanizing him so much in those early reels crucially allows him to retain an edge of sympathy throughout and affects the way one reacts to the whole movie, I believe (at least for me), which also draws a subtle connection between Farr’s character and the equally well-drawn character of Heflin’s wife (Leora Dana). And it is this, and Ford’s own realization about it that in turn makes him feel affinity for Heflin, that makes what he does at the end (which I know some people don’t buy) fully believable and the only way the whole story would make sense, at least in my understanding of it. Well, I’ve written about this at length before (in my piece “Saloon Girls and Ranchers’ Daughters in THE WESTERN READER) that I know some here have read. I do think it’s important to understand what happens in these movies. The word “optimistic” might describe Daves’ Westerns, “redemptive” certainly does in a number of case (The Hanging Tree also jumps to mind in this context). He’s definitely anti-racist (very artfully) and that’s one other motif. I wouldn’t say he’s utopian, fairly balanced in the way he sees things–looking for something positive in stories in Westerns was more common in the 50s, as you say, and I’m inclined to say it’s a point in their favor, but the “positive’ that comes is usually very hard-earned, especially in the best Westerns.


    • Great reply Blake. And some excellent points, as usual, just a few of which I want to pick up on.

      I know Ben Wade in 3:10 to Yuma is essentially the villain, albeit a charming one, but (largely through that interaction with Farr’s character I agree) he becomes something of an anti-hero by the film’s conclusion. That’s why I mentioned here the anti-heroic nature of the characters (Jubal would be a more marginal case though) Farr draws out in the three movies for Daves.

      I’d go along with your assessment of characters earning their redemption or happiness the hard way in westerns – almost everyone loses people close to them in The Last Wagon before they can see anything positive on the horizon. I don’t feel that the fact this is hard won dilutes the basically positive overall feel though; if anything, it means the characters and viewers appreciate it all the more by knowing how much it cost.


  4. I strongly agree with what you say in your last paragraph above. I was thinking about it after I wrote before and felt like I wanted to add that the “positive” being so hard-won in Westerns may be their greatest dramatic strength for me–and The Last Wagon is certainly a great example. I don’t think other genres match this, meaning it may be done well in some movies, but was so consistently forceful in Westerns.

    I always have to think about when to say “is” and “was” with this genre–it changed so much and most of the things I have always responded to and valued most, that “hard-won positive” and the themes of redemption, renewal and reconciliation, are long gone from it or reappear in a much less profound way later on. I get your point about the “anti-heroic” characters in the three Daves Westerns with Farr (though only saw “hero” when I read it–and that’s what prompted my comment), and by the way, I think “anti-heroic” describes the Glenn Ford protagonist in Jubal especially well. He’s trying to escape from trouble (in his past) and doesn’t really want to be drawn into the kind of action that occurs–he’s more acted upon and then forced to act.

    One thing I feel as regards the Ben Wade character (who I believe we do see in the same way) and that may have prompted me before is that in the appalling James Mangold remake, I really think in Mangold’s mind Ben is the “hero” because Dan Evans is so diminished, made almost pathetic, while Ben as played by Russell Crowe is frankly romanticized in a way Glenn Ford’s Ben never is, even though, ironically (at least as I see it), Ford makes his Ben a more sympathetic, fully humanized figure. Of course that has something to do with what I’ve complained about before–that Mangold did not know what the two women were in the movie for even though he kept them (though in his version the wife does not make her crucial reappearance in the climax); one only has to compare his insensitive, virtually meaningless attempt at recreating the Felicia Farr sequence to understand why Ford’s Ben does carry that edge of sympathy even though our empathy is rightfully with Heflin’s Dan throughout the movie. In the end, it was most of all making the outlaw Ben the new hero, and the depressing ending that accompanied this change, that alienated me more than anything else (well maybe along with the radically escalated violence and killing), even apart from comparison with the so much more refined and beautiful aesthetics of the original. There’s a different moral basis to doing the story that way–very 21st century.

    I know I complain about that movie a lot but it actually had the effect of breaking my resolve to see every Western that comes out, and I don’t anymore. I’ll still take a chance most of the time but will carefully consider it first.

    I didn’t mean to get so far off The Last Wagon with this, though this is all Daves so it’s related. I will add that I did see The Last Wagon theatrically in ‘Scope the first time but haven’t in awhile–and you’ve kind of reminded me I’m overdue to get that DVD in my collection. Daves composes his Westerns beautifully. Though I understand wanting to see a movie, and did spend years watching pan and scan on TV, I finally resolved I wouldn’t anymore–no one is really doing themself a favor not to hold out and see it as it was made, especially a 50s Western made by a master. My big complaint about the Western Channel is that they don’t respect aspect ratios most of the them when it comes to anamorphic, for all their devout attitude to the genre they are intent on celebrating.

    Along with Hell Bent for Leather, Felicia Farr also did Reprisal! with George Sherman. She’s wonderful in that too–and good in other movies she is in besides the Westerns. I hadn’t read earlier comments above about people wishing there was more of her to see, but I agree with that. I always had the impression that while she didn’t completely abandon her career, she didn’t pursue it very aggressively after she married Jack Lemmon and instead mostly supported his career. That’s too bad–and I don’t say that because I don’t like Lemmon, though I’d hate to think it was this way because of any insistence about it on his part. Interestingly, though they didn’t appear together for the director, Lemmon also had ones of his best roles in a Daves Western–in Cowboy, in which Glenn Ford was once more superb.


    • Blake, feel free to take things as far off topic as you wish – there’s no rules round here in that regard. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I think we’ve mentioned it before, but I share your antipathy for Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma. I do understand that the film was made with a different audience, and different sensibility, in mind but the alterations shift the dynamic of the picture so far, and not in any good way. The ending of the remake is frankly ridiculous, a meaningless smirk at the audience and logic. In fact, the more I think about the film, the more annoying the whole thing becomes. The weakening of Dan Evans’ character is the really fatal flaw though – he is turned from a man gnawed at by doubt into a figure to be pitied. By making Evans into a man despised even by his own family, the audience is manipulated into identifying with or at least sympathizing wholly with Wade. Quite apart from the fact Crowe played Wade as an oafish character, it robs him of his big redemptive moment.
      When I first saw the remake, I was genuinely curious to find out if they could replicate even a little of the magic of the Ford/Farr relationship. I was hugely disappointed by that aspect. The scene was badly botched and had none of the charm, grace or chemistry of the ’57 version. To be honest, I kind of wish they had just dropped it as the way they did it adds nothing whatsoever to the finished product.


  5. I’d just like to say that I wholly agree with Blake’s comment about Mangold not knowing why the two women were there in the original 3:10 to Yuma. But I’d go one step further and suggest that Mangold didn’t know why ANY of the characters were there….Anyway thanks for bringing The Last Wagon to my attention Colin. I’ve got so much catching up to do on this period that I’m always glad of a place to start..a definite “next acquisition” as it were!


    • Yes, there’s not a lot to take away from Mangold’s movie. The first time I saw it, I thought it was passable but a second viewing, hot on the heels of watching the original again, threw all the faults (and there are many) into sharp relief.

      I have to say, I honestly do envy you if you have a bit of catching up to do on 50s westerns – the era really is a treasure trove for movie fans.


  6. On the point of the 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma, I can speak from experience with my college-level Westerns film class that many students (say in the 18 to 21 year-old range) enjoy the Mangold film, specifically for the action and often for Ben Foster’s portrayal of Ben Wade’s/Russell Crowe’s second-in-command (which I think is very well done/interesting). I would argue that such a demographic is not likely to have seen the Glenn Ford version first….and thus I cut Mangold some slack and appreciate his attempt to make the Western relevant to a new generation.

    The film can serve a role – despite what artistic criticisms may be correctly leveled – if it can draw a youthful group to go back and evaluate the original. Case in point, I have recently had some of my students tell me they preferred the 1969 version of True Grit over the 2010 Coen Brothers film. Colin, you would have enjoyed the comment of one student….she said that the older/previous directors seemed to know better how to make Westerns. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    As a final point, I would argue that one can identify with the Evans/Christian Bale character BECAUSE of his family issues….he sticks through with his mission to demonstrate strength to his son and in doing so, redeems his own legacy (and the economic legacy of his family when the reward is given posthumously).

    Oh yes… more item, ha…from what I read/viewed, the producers of the 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma made a point of avoiding any CGI/special effects in their stunt work…so that was good of them!

    Thanks for the chance for input.



    • Chad, that’s interesting to hear your students’ positive reaction to the Mangold film – although the comment about True Grit is arguably even more so.
      Even if the movie isn’t to my taste, I guess Mangold achieved what he set out to do – as you say, make a western to appeal to a different generation and demographic. For me though, that updating brought too many changes. Blake already mentioned the shift in the moral balance of the story, and I’d also cite a change in attitude among the characters. Dan Evans’ relationship with his son really stood out in this regard – there was far too much of the modern teenager about the boy, and it made everything feel like it was happening out of time for me.
      Thanks for sharing – it’s always good to get different perspectives on these things.


  7. One of the finest westerns ever made. It. has a very powerful and exciting opening before Widmark was captured by the posse. My only complaint is the ending was quite abrupt.. I have never stop watching and am still enjoying The Last Wagon, since I first saw it in the 50s. Best regards.


    • Yes, it does wrap up quite fast after the Apache attack. Still, I guess the main points had been made by that time and the filmmakers wanted to get to the courtroom climax.


  8. THE LAST WAGON is one of these westerns I can watch again and again. Your review ,Colin,makes me think it’s that time again! Oh to have seen it on the big screen, with all that beautiful scenery, great action and Richard Widmark at the heart of it.
    Regarding Susan Kohner and Stephanie Griffin’s characters, I thought they were maybe too black and white, though of course Stephanie finally changes. The way the two half sisters were portrayed, one was a saint and the other thoroughly reprehensible. It made for good dramatic conflict but if you think about it, how on earth did their father deal with it. – or not deal with it.
    Nick Adams also did well, as his character does some growing up on the long journey.
    Regarding 3.10 To Yuma, I can’t see beyond Ford and Heflin and just wasn’t interested in a remake ( though I imagine the contemporary script and performances would make it almost unrecognisable from the Delmer Daves classic.


    • You’re lucky if you skipped it, Vienna (3:10 to Yuma 2007)–it traumatized me, honestly.

      Chad, I don’t want to get into too much argument about this because I appreciate that you teach Westerns and have probably given a lot of thought on how to make your students aware of the genre. But I don’t care about the present demographic–many people that age have no patience and no attention span and movies need to be like video games for them; so, the ramped up action and body count that no good Western needs (any good Western has its share of action, but in balance with so many other things). So I don’t cut Mangold any slack at all for trying to appeal to this generation, because by his own statements he loved the original movie yet it’s hard to understand why because he seems to have gotten nothing out of it. I certainly don’t expect anyone to follow the original in a remake, but 1) the things he changed, liked the ending, compare so badly,
      2) the things he kept (like the Felicia Farr episode we’ve discussed) are done so lamely, and 3) the one most important thing he left out–the drought (and finally the rain)–is what made the original work so well, unifying everything in it with an unpretentious poetic beauty, and he came up with nothing comparable. The only good thing I can say about it is that I felt at times Christian Bale could have been pretty good as Dan Evans if the role had been conceived differently (though not remotely on a level with the great Van Heflin), so it’s not really a compliment since I hate what was done with the character. As for Ben Foster, what was interesting about him, Chad? The obvious homosexuality? There was no shading at all in the character and I’d suggest that Richard Jaeckel (always a wonderful actor in the genre) in the same role was less showy but more interesting and his relationship with Ben/Glenn Ford also much more subtle and interesting.

      One Western I skipped as a result of this experience was the True Grit remake so no comment on that one for me. It was easy to miss because I’d pretty much sworn off the Coen Brothers anyway. So for that one my love for the captivating 1969 version remains untarnished.

      I guess I’d like to say this. There is as Colin says a treasure trove of Westerns from the first century of movies, and the best period was over years ago. As a genre it’s just inexhaustible–there still seem to be good Westerns I see that I haven’t seen before, and it’s always a pleasure to get back to the best ones no matter how many times one has seen them. So for me, I really wouldn’t care if there was never another Western made. I would rather see the genre as it was fully discovered or rediscovered by those in present and future generations who do take an interest in it.

      Will just add I like the courtroom scene that wraps up The Last Wagon.


      • Blake, I don’t know whether we talked about this before – I think we probably did, but can’t recall specifics now. Anyway, I had no problem with the remake of True Grit – it changed the focus of the story, closer to the novel I believe, and so I never felt it was competing with Hathaway’s movie for my affections. I certainly wouldn’t see it in the same light as the 3:10 to Yuma remake; for one thing, it has a greater sense of belonging in the period it was set. I wouldn’t class it as a film to avoid for fear it might damage your memory of the original.


    • Hi Vienna. I guess the two sisters (or half-sisters) are painted with fairly broad strokes, but their presence does make for good drama, and hammers home the point of the script too. I think the whole cast did very creditable work, and added a lot to the movie. Even the small role for James Drury and the uncredited one for Timothy Carey were nicely played.


  9. Well, Blake, I appreciate the time you give to the ideas I put forward and definitely respect your own writing on the Western genre. However, I personally do not choose to write off emerging generations and their interaction with the genre. You may be horrified, ha, to learn that I also explore the Western video game genre within my course…the game Red Dead Redemption (2010), by Rockstar Games, I believe is one of the most important Westerns to be made in the last generation. It is part of the genre and plays an important role in introducing those not familiar with Westerns to this art category and thus from there they are free to explore it further…..and hopefully get to the many good films that you and Colin champion.

    The level of detail the game designers gave to the game, the references they play upon and the opportunity it represents for an immersive Western experience for people around the globe is culturally significant. For those interested, I explore the game further at this post (and among later ones):

    I DO care if more Westerns are made, Blake, since I believe the genre is an important framework for understanding the North American continent, both historically and right now. Further, I can’t say that all the best Westerns have already been made. In my opinion, we dismiss new voices on the genre to the peril of the genre itself – we need their voices and contributions for the genre to continue.

    I have personally been struck by the ideas that fresh eyes bring to interpretations of Westerns (I am 41 myself and thus as a 70s baby was in the transition away from the “hay day” for Westerns but not completely removed from them). For example, one student commented how hard it was to do product placement with a film set in the Old West…and we can dismiss that monetary practice, but that is often a real source of revenue for filmmakers, like it or not. That point led to a discussion of all the factors that could make it difficult to get new Westerns made. I guess we may only be left with Wells Fargo sponsorship, right? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Good discussion!


  10. Delmer Daves depends mainly upon the considerable talents of Richard Widmark, Max Steiner’s music, and nature, to carry this film, and each rises admirably to the occasion.

    The problem I have with “The Last Wagon” is the supporting cast, whose roles, in many cases appear underwritten, sometimes to the point of their being one-dimensional characters who act and re-act to events as expected, with few, if any, suprises.

    To me, the character of Jolie Normand (Susan Kohner), is the most interesting of the survivors and Miss Kohner’s quiet, dignified and expressive performance stands out – it is a pity she was not given more to do.

    While I enjoyed “The Last Wagon”, and consider it a “good” Western, I feel that it could have been a “great” Western.

    Colin, I am aware that, for some time, both Blake Lucas and yourself have been strong supporters of the talented Delmer Daves . Isn’t it ironic that his post- western films for which he was, (in some quarters), denegrated, have suddenly gained status and hopefully, his considerable achievements in the film industry will now be recognised.


    • Rod, at the end of the day, the story is built around the characters played by Widmark and Farr. As such, the secondary characters are always going to be a little underdeveloped. Still, they do serve their purpose and make the exploration of other themes possible.

      I’m not very familiar with Daves’ 60s films, so I can’t comment on them. I do get the impression though that they damaged his critical standing to some extent. This is a shame since his westerns are uniformly excellent and, with The Red House & Dark Passage, there are a couple of good film noirs in there too.


  11. Colin, great piece as always and may I, like others, applaud you for admiration for
    Delmer Daves.
    THE LAST WAGON,however is something of a sore point for me personally as it is the only
    major 50s widescreen Western that I was not able to see in a cinema.
    Growing up as a kid in the Fifties I feel blessed to have seen so many great films in the
    best place to have seen them large single-screen cinemas.
    In the mid-Fifties the leading UK cinema chain Rank,had a beef with Fox and would not show
    their pictures.Granada which owned some of the best cinemas in the UK picked all the Fox
    releases of 1956.Not only that they had upgraded their cinemas to not only show Cinemascope
    but also had installed magnetic stereo.Sadly, growing up I lived in an region where there were
    no Granada cinemas,so not only did I miss THE LAST WAGON but also the other “big” Fox Western of 1956,Robert Webbs underrated THE PROUD ONES.
    Sadly THE LAST WAGON did not have a long life on the revival circuit so the first time I saw
    it was on TV. I have the region 1 DVD and agree its a beauty of a transfer.
    I was however able to catch THE PROUD ONES in the early Sixties; having to travel to the other
    side of London in order to see it..When THE LAST WAGON came out in 1956; the same week
    Rank ran the Victor Mature vehicle THE SHARKFIGHTERS and also Disneys THE GREAT
    LOCOMOTIVE CHASE so I had plenty to see that week.
    The Granada circuit were still showing Fox films in magnetic stereo in the Sixties so I was able
    to catch up with a lot of stuff I had missed the first time round:GARDEN OF EVIL,PRINCE
    VALLIANT,HELL AND HIGH WATER,WHITE FEATHER and so on. The experience of seeing
    these films on huge screens in stereo is an experience that I remember vividly to this day.
    I envy anyone who saw THE LAST WAGON in a cinema in the Fifties what a place to
    experience Wilfred Clines wonderful photography of those gorgeous Arizona locations.
    Even the more modest Boetticher Westerns looked magnificient on the big screen,
    with COMANCHE STATION a standout. Boettichers wonderful compositions of the
    stunning Lone Pine locations made ones jaw drop!
    Some people have mentioned the 3:10 TO YUMA remake,I loathed that film.
    Stupid elements like exploding horses,fortified stagecoaches and torture by electrode
    were brought into the mix;plus a final shootout of staggering ineptitude. Daves did not
    need these gimmicks because, quite frankly,this guy could direct!.


    • Thanks John. I really envy your having seen so many great movies, as you say, in the best possible environment. I think these scope features benefit from proper cinematic screenings more any other type of movie. I try to catch as many revivals of old films as possible but, sadly, the prints used aren’t always as good as they could be.


  12. Colin:
    It’s been a few years since I’ve watched “The Last Wagon”, so as is often the case with your reviews, this was a nice reminder to re-watch it. I always think of Richard Widmark as an “urban” actor, until I stop to think of all the westerns he’s been in. And, like so many of that generation, he was always top-notch, even if the material wasn’t.

    Regarding the “3:10 to Yuma” remake – I too thought it was misconceived at first viewing. But then re-watched the original when the remake Blu-ray came out so that I could watch them back-to-back. When compared immediately like that, the remake became me.

    On the other hand, I thought the Coen Bros. “True Girt” was terrific. It did stick more more closely to the book, but I thought they showed a real respect and feel for the genre. Upon re-watching it, I found that I liked it even more.

    “Appaloosa” is another recent western in which the director exhibits a great feel for the genre – plus it had great source material.

    As always, keep up the good work!


    • Hello Tony, and thanks for joining in on this one. Widmark was very flexible, wasn’t he? He seemed to fit into whatever role and setting he was handed.

      Watching the original and remake of 3:10 to Yuma really brings the faults of the latter to the fore. It was only when I did that myself that I realized how problematic it was. The Coen Borthers’ version of True Grit is quite different to the original but I agree that it feels more respectful of the genre, and consequently more satisfying. I haven’t seen Appaloosa for a while, maybe not since its theatrical run, but I quite liked it too.


  13. Well, I don’t want to distract the discussion from Colin’s thorough review of The Last Wagon, and my goal isn’t to go into an automatic defense of the 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma (there are some continuity errors with editing)….but I don’t think that the 1957 version of Elmore Leonard’s tale is completely immune from criticism.

    The arrival of Van Heflin’s wife to the hotel, for example, seemed quite hokey/melodramatic to me upon my first viewing of the film and I thought the wife did not need to arrive at all – why would she in a 19th century Old West social/gender context? I would side with the 2007 version as a more realistic/likely interpretation of the gender roles of the late 19th century West – i.e. the decision was made by Evans to accept the mission and the wife stayed at the ranch to look after both it and the boys.

    Coupled with that plot moment was very melodramatic music as they embraced – i.e. telling us to feel/swoon with music as with the couple. My current students often have an automatic disconnect – as they should, in my view – from such a heavy-handed approach. But perhaps, to build on Blake’s point, this 1950s Western was ALSO playing to the audience of its time? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    That said, I am in great admiration of Glenn Ford and Van Heflin for their portrayals and felt they were quite strong.

    Thanks again for the framework for discussion, Colin.


    • I don’t know Chad, I find the nature of almost all the relationships in the remake to be more a reflection of 21st century dynamics than 19th century ones.
      The appearance of Evans’ wife in the movie, from a purely dramatic perspective, not only works for me but also ties in with (you could even say it provokes) Wade’s change of heart. I think that development, along with the earlier encounter with Farr, is instrumental in showing Wade that there are other options.

      And by the way Chad, don’t worry about “distracting the discussion” – these kinds of chats are a large part of what makes maintaining this site so enjoyable for me. ๐Ÿ™‚


  14. Colin,

    I was rather saddened to read Billyriel1971’s rather unsympathetic comments regarding the emotional meeting between ” Dan” and “Emmy” in Delmer Dave’s original version of “3.10 to Yuma”.

    After discussing this scene, both my wife and I are of the opinion that it succinctly exposes the depth of Emmy’s feelings for her husband, in that she does leave the farm and her children -“19th Century Old social/gender context” or not.

    If “manipulation of the audience” is part of this discussion, then the unnecessary dispatch of one of the main protagonists at the conclusion of the 2007 remake, must “take the cake”.

    I must add that, while I do not “detest” this remake, I consider it inferior to the original.


    • Rod, I’m another who feels the meeting between Evans and his wife adds a lot to the story. I do think the remake was wrong to remove that scene as I feel it weakens the plot and further damages the Evans character.

      Still, it’s always nice to hear how different people are affected by these variations on the story, and the contrasting takes on what does and doesn’t work for each of us. I guess the most important thing here is not whether we all reach a consensus on the different interpretations, but simply the fact that these movies are still capable of provoking discussion and debate among fans.


  15. I just want to back up Colin and Rod on this point. I thought of writing about it before but you’ve both said it and made the point well.

    Rod, please note you inadvertently confused the two women–Alice is Dan’s wife, (Leora Dana) Emmy is the barmaid (Felicia Farr).

    In my piece “Saloon Girls and Ranchers’ Daughters…” I wrote quite a bit about the links between Dan/Alice and Ben/Emmy and about the movie, because I had these two characters (Alice and Emmy) both high on my list of favorite Western heroines so could afford them and the movie the space. I’m not going to write better about it here than I did there so don’t want to even try.

    But I have to say, Chad (Billyriel1971), that your remark on Alice’s coming to Contention does seem to put you firmly on the side of the 2007 remake, since Mangold did leave this out. Of course, he had good reason to do this after trashing the character of Alice, who deeply loves her husband (and he her) in the original movie but seems to despise him in the remake (note that in the stopover at the Evans ranch in Daves, Alice is momentarily charmed by the seductive Ben, but kind of absently and it isn’t something she is seeking, while in Mangold, she herself actively prompts the flirtation and one feels she’d go off to the barn with him given the opportunity. At any event, in Daves, the marriage is central, deeply loving even in a hard time for them, and Alice is a strong, mature woman
    –like so many women in the real West did have to be–and the Contention scene is not only credible but her presence here and at the end of the movie very moving.

    Maybe we shouldn’t linger over this too much. Again, I feel Chad’s sympathies are clearly with the remake–he can say if I’m wrong about that–and even if others of us disagree, I don’t begrudge him or anyone their own considered opinion. I’ll say plainly that I feel Delmer Daves’ 3:10 TO YUMA is one of the least assailable of all Westerns and also rates with certain films of Ford, Mann, Walsh, Hawks, Boetticher, Tourneur and Parrish among the greatest of all Westerns.

    Otherwise, rather than argue the merits of more recent Westerns, of which there are ones that I like or find interesting (like MEEK’S CUTOFF), I want to offer two things on this point to Chad–first is my impression that the richest vein for Westerns now might be what was once the Contemporary West but is now back in time the way the 19th century West was when Westerns first began to be made. So for example, in this century, I most liked BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and would argue that this is a Western (it’s set in the 1960s, decades before it was made, and draws themes and motifs from earlier Westerns that I believe many have not observed, though of course, taking them in a direction that, when it had been there before, had generally been subtextual)–I haven’t seen it since it came out (though saw it several times) and suspect maybe it’s not a great film, but a good one anyway.

    Second, Chad, I have to say honestly and with all due respect that I was so dismayed about what you said about a game that I didn’t know what to say about it. It might take me a long essay to explain this, but there is nothing to which I am more opposed that the idea of “immersive” or “interactive” audience experiences with what are supposed to be works of art. The reason–art requires “reflective distance” and to me is nothing without it. That doesn’t mean it cannot evoke great emotion in us, but we know it is is separate and exists in a separate space. If this is the direction we’re going in, art is over and that’s way beyond simply talking about Westerns.


  16. Terrific post, Colin, on a western featuring perhaps my favorite Widmark performance – and a fascinating comments conversation to follow, as well! I love this film up until the (to me) soppy and unbelievable ending, but admire your in-depth defense of it in relation to Delmer Daves’ optimism, something which hadn’t occurred to me before. The opening minutes of THE LAST WAGON include some of the most arresting visuals of any 50s western as far as I’m concerned, the red rocks and spiky pines of Sedona giving it a distinctive look. I’ll also never forget Widmark’s hatchet-throwing dispatch of a certain baddie early in the picture. The supporting cast also acquits themselves well. The whole thing is pretty great – just a pity about that ending.


    • Thanks Jeff. I think Daves always used landscape very well – the freshness of the mountain backdrops in Jubal and the clinging, suffocating forest in The Red House spring to mind. I like the way you can see the red dust kicking up under the feet of the actors and the horses’ hooves in this movie.


  17. Well, since I’ve been given license by Colin to “distract the discussion” from the original subject of his post, ha, I just want to make two points.

    First, my approach toward the two versions of the 3:10 to Yuma story is not argue a preference for one version over the other but rather to evaluate each within certain criteria. As stated, I find the acting of Glenn Ford and Van Heflin strong and believable in the 1957 film. That said, when comparing the 2007 no-show of the wife at the end of the story to the 1957 pleading-with-the-husband scene, I find the 2007 approach to be the more historically likely (though not an absolute) action. If the arrival of the wife at hotel is for dramatic purposes then at that point it becomes a story less in relation to the historical Old West, in my view, than it is about a given relationship that could be presented within any genre. Also, I would argue that if Ben Wade’s gang had a chance to kill Evans – as happens in the 2007 film – that such is a more likely result than the happy husband waving to the wife below from his perch on the train. This is my perspective and I respect the views of others as to which is more likely.

    Second, Blake, I definitely respect your writing and commitment to the Western genre, but have to respectfully disagree that the current gaming experience does not allow for artistic reflection. I am not sure if you have ever viewed – or played – the new generation of video games but reflection, in my experience, can happen both during the game and of course, afterward. As I explore on my blog, Red Dead Redemption – which is part of the Western genre – explores such ideas as the encroachment of central government and corporate industry into rural areas, Indigenous territorial rights and the presumption that Christianity was necessary for the โ€œbettermentโ€ of Amerindian peoples and additionally, that both government and revolution in the โ€œname of the peopleโ€ can be co-opted by those seeking personal gain.

    Those are some very BIG ideas that a whole new/younger generation can learn about via game play….AND reflect upon afterward. What Rockstar Games has created with Red Dead Redemption IS art and the level of detail and thought has literally labelled it a “masterpiece” within the gaming world. Happily to me, that masterpiece is a Western. ๐Ÿ™‚

    (Thanks again, Colin, for the forum!)


    • Sorry, Chad but you will never persuade me that anything like what you describe is art. Nor does it sound like it the way you describe it. The ideas that you talk about–and so many others–are treated in Westerns in a way that leaves it up to the viewer who sorts through complexities within a narrative and character arcs and comes to an intelligent and non-simplistic perspective about them. The viewer is not interactive but separate from the work and responds to it in that way. What you describe is a New World I know, but not one I would ever want to be a part of. I have worked very hard over the years developing my aesthetic responses to bring them to challenging movies and other works of art.

      Honestly, your comments about the two versions of “Yuma” also are just so hard to relate to. You can’t know so absolutely what the historical West was like. When people think they do, it is presumptious. And Westerns do not owe history everything–they take from it but owe to how they treat the integration of the history with the imagined narrative to make it convincing.

      You never got back to me about the Drought in the first version–yet this does ground that version of “Yuma” very deeply in the historical West and gives it so much of its character and meaning and yet Mangold readily gave it up, as readily as he gave up sensitivity to women. When you deride Alice coming to Contention or the ending in which Dan and Alice reconnect in the rain as he rides the train with Ben, you deride things that are among the most moving in the film and the moments in which it all comes together. What next–how about scorning Frankie Laine returning with one of the most haunting Western title songs of all time?

      Beneath what you’ve said I do feel an indifference you share with Mangold to women and to their place in classical Westerns (mostly gone by the wayside now, though “Meek’s Cutoff” tried in a fresh way to recover what had once been there). You don’t care about how central male/female relationships were in Daves’ movie so you are comfortable with what is put in their place. And that also goes for the fate of the hero, Dan Evans, who is not some flashy gunfighter but a prosaic man with courage and enough will and ability to do the job he takes on– succedding at least up to a point. The telling point is the single thing that Ben does for him in making the jump to the train, and this is supremely well-motivated if you understand everything that happens in the film.

      When I hear words like “gender roles” and a phrase like “social/gender context” I know I’m around academia, and not too far away from the academic feminist ideology I despise and write against. But because you elect to post to Colin’s blog, and he is so intelligent and balanced in his thinking about genre films, and Westerns in particular, I do feel you are your own man and so I want to listen to you. But I would suggest you let go a little of what is “likely” (hard to know in any event) and watch Westerns, which deal in myth as much as reality, with what is possible and can be made believable. And also that so much of that academic jargon and thinking has never been helpful at all to understanding what movies really are.


  18. I appreciate the time of a response, Blake, and simply differ as to the boundaries you seem to employ as to what can be deemed “artistic” and thus offer an opportunity for reflection upon issues. It is unfortunate, I think, to close yourself off from the work of such a game as Red Dead Redemption (2010), as I think a person with a knowledge of the genre such as yourself would recognize many of the references made by the game.

    I don’t quite understand your characterization of academia, other than to interpret some dismissive tone toward it….perhaps that is not the case. Having group up in a rural town of 700, I personally feel quite grounded and don’t think that the use of a given term – e.g. social / gender context – should be avoided given how others may have used it. If a term has utility, so be it. We all write from a context…a multitude of overlapping contexts, really.

    I don’t really have much to else to say about the two films we have been discussing. You laud the 1957 film as practically unassailable and I have shared my critiques. You had asked about my interpretation of the drought….from your writing I assume that you view the rain coming with the arrival of the wife and successful mission of Evans (Van Heflin) as completely believable while I tend it to view that perfect timing as pre-configured dramatic orchestration for the point of a movie. Things sure seemed to work out well in the end, didn’t they? ๐Ÿ˜‰ Again, aesthetically, I prefer the grittiness of the 2007 ending but as Colin has fairly mentioned, a viewer can have contrasting takes. I respect your right to yours.

    Thanks for your time.



    • I think you must be very tied to an idea of realism, Chad. The rain coming it when it does (actually after Ben has jumped on the train with Dan) is better seen as a natural miracle–it is the right end for what the movie is all about. Is “pre-configured dramatic orchestration” somehow undesirable in a movie? And maybe you think the 2007 version is somehow “completely believable” (I’ll refrain from commenting on the myriad ways that it simply is not). But look, although you don’t say so directly, you prefer the 2007 version–that’s very clear. Your glowing use of the word “grittiness” says it all. And I feel exactly the opposite.

      Most people here seem to feel the same way I do about it, and I think you have seen that. Probably it’s best to retire discussion of these two movies for now, but I would remind that the 1957 version seems to have come into a lot of extra respect since 2007, chosen for the National Registry this last time out and getting a Criterion release. I think most genre aficianados greatly admire it now.

      I think my previous post was a little strident and I apologize for that. I always mean to keep up my side of a respectful and civil discussion. To put it very straightforwardly in as few words as possible a lot of academic writing since the 70s has been straightjacketed by ideological concerns and these have been brought to the teaching of movies–and I’ve been around university courses enough to know that’s true. I’m not directing this at you, Chad, but it is generally the case and I strongly believe that starting with ideology leads to simplification.

      The Western has suffered many misconceptions as a result of this, one of them being that classical Westerns were an uncomplicated celebration of Manifest Destiny, patriarchy, settling accounts with gunplay and things like that. But the opposite is true–Westerns of the 50s were full of critique but it was complex, richly contextualized, and not cynical. THE LAST WAGON is a good example of that kind of film. Something to think about…


  19. Hi again, Blake (et al)….I appreciate your follow-up comments and no offense personally has been taken in the discussion of academia. I do think that the 1957 film is worth a look and my students are made aware of that Daves’ Western. We may differ in our own takes on a given film and/or our approach toward Westerns at times but variety of perspective leads to good discussion. ๐Ÿ˜‰ And I thank you for the one that we have had.



  20. I just want to say that I’ve been really enjoying the discussion that’s taken off here. I’ve always viewed this place as essentially an open forum where movie lovers can get together and chew the fat over whatever subject comes up. It’s been great to see people articulating and defending their contrasting positions in such an intelligent and, frankly, gentlemanly way. Thanks guys – it honestly is a pleasure to be in a position to host such lively, civil and stimulating conversations.


  21. Pingback: No Wonder My Allergies Are Raging Springtime Movie Quiz | It Rains... You Get Wet

  22. I’m coming to this post and thread late in the game, and I’m really sorry I did.

    Seeing it as a kid โ€” 16mm scope print with reddish color โ€” that image of Widmark tied to the wagon wheel really burned itself in my brain. Finally coming back to it about five years ago, it was one of the handful of films that got me thinking I needed to write a book about these things.

    I can’t get enough of Felicia Farr in a Western. Her sequence in 3:10 To Yuma is one of the strangest, most awkward and certainly well-acted in 50s Westerns โ€” right up there with the Lee Marvin wagon-in-the-rain scene from Seven Men From Now.

    Anyway, terrific post, Colin โ€” and all you commenters really added to it tremendously. This is the kinda stuff that makes this whole blog deal worthwhile.


    • Better late than never Toby!

      The imagery of the movie – Widmark is almost iconic chained up to that wheel – is one of its great strengths. When those kind of visuals are combined with a top flight story then the result has to be a little bit special.

      And yes, Felicia Farr and Glenn Ford’s scene in 3:10 to Yuma is a piece of real cinematic poetry. It’s impossible to overemphasize how magical and wonderful those brief moments are.

      I know you get a real kick out of it too when the comments section at your place sparks a good discussion. So I’m with you on that – it’s probably the most rewarding aspect of blogging.


  23. Pingback: The Last Wagon (1956) | Tim Neath - Visual Artist

  24. I quite like this film. I recall my dad taking us to a drive-in and seeing this and BACKLASH. (it was nothing strange for the drive-in here to show films 10-15 years after release. This was sometime in the mid 60’s if I recall right. I’ve caught this one a couple of times on late night cable and it does the job. Nice review.


  25. Pingback: A Decade, and counting… | Riding the High Country

  26. Re: Last Wagon, do you have any information about how much Richard Widmark did himself especially at the beginning of the movie rather than a stunt man being used?


  27. Rediscover Richard Widmark is the site.
    Do you know about the biography recently published Becoming Richard Widmark? I’ve written an extensive review on Amazon under my other user name Agitator76


  28. Pingback: Reprisal! | Riding the High Country

  29. Pingback: The Films of Delmer Daves | Riding the High Country

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