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Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Last Frontier (Columbia, 1955)

A weaker Anthony Mann Western

The Last Frontier is ‘important’ as being an Anthony Mann Western (the seventh of eleven or twelve, depending on your definition of a Western, and the second for Columbia). It stars Victor Mature and deals with the domination of the ‘noble savage’. The characterization is unusual. It is essentially pessimistic.
Opinion is divided as to its quality: many are very complimentary about Mature’s acting (and indeed he could be very good in Westerns) and others have praised the film’s quirkiness but Brian Garfield the Great wrote that the movie was “trashy big-budget junk”. It was shot in CinemaScope and in Technicolor in Popocatécatl Volcano, Puebla, Mexico locations by William C Mellor of The Naked Spur and Bad Day at Black Rock fame, so is visually powerful. The screenplay is by Phillip Yordan (The Man from Laramie, Johnny Guitar, The Bravados, Broken Lance) and Russell S Hughes (Jubal) so it ought to have been good, and often is. And of course Anthony Mann directed it. Yet it never really ‘gels’ and it remains, with Cimarron, the least satisfactory of Mann’s Westerns. Both Mann and Yordan had always looked down on cavalry Westerns and although they had finally decided to do one, perhaps it shows.
It’s a Civil War story, in the sense that it set during the war, but out West in a wild Wyoming outpost. The plot has the traditional cavalry Western element of a stupid by-the-book Army colonel (Robert Preston) and a level-headed captain (Guy Madison, doing the occasional big-screen oater between seasons of the TV Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok) who finally prevails. Naturally, the hero Jed Cooper (Mature) falls for the colonel’s wife (Anne Bancroft), to provide love interest. Been there, done that. Yet it has subtlety, and the essential theme is the ‘civilizing’ of the wild man, but this applies more to the white mountain-man trapper Jed than to the Indians under Red Cloud (Manuel Dondé). Jed is tamed and domesticated, which arouses mixed emotions in the audience.
Mann was famously interested in landscape and the visual composition of his pictures. Even the titles reflect that and it may not be too fanciful to suggest that just as The Far Country set the tale of a hard and cold man in the frozen north of the title and Bend of the River described a turning point in the life of a man putting behind his past in a distant land, so The Last Frontier told of a free frontier spirit finally being tamed by 'civilization'. The very first shot shows an idyllic (i.e. wild) scene of trees, sky and mountains, then the camera drops to show a stolid little fort - paradise has been invaded. This is really the message.

Jed, Gus and Mungo (the latter two played by James Whitmore and Pat Hogan) are a sympathetic trio of trappers who are robbed of a year’s worth of pelts by the Sioux, who are angry at incursions of the US Army. The mountain men seek redress at the fort and are recruited by Capt. Riordan (Madison) as scouts.

The colonel’s wife (Bancroft) is, as was also traditional, at first snooty and stand-offish but is gradually wooed by Jed’s energy and naïf charm. Her martinet husband, a sort of Colonel Thursday figure (for Fort Apache fans), is thought dead but then turns up and assumes command, catastrophically.
Though seduced by the fine uniform, Cooper is insubordinate and drunk, and hated by Sergeant Decker (Peter Whitney). There is an epic fight between the two, much of it on the roof, shot from below. The uniform is key, in fact. Cooper yearns for it, and it symbolizes his acceptance into 'civilized' society. Bancroft tells her husband, "I married a man, not a uniform." Preston replies, "I am not a man without this." Later, the blue jacket is taken from Cooper. "You're not fit to wear a uniform and you will never will be," says Madison. It is a crisis point for the wild man.

In one telling scene the colonel falls into a bear pit and is stuck in the enclosed, dark and confined space while Cooper stands tall and free against the sky, mocking him. But it doesn't last: the free spirit is soon to be confined too. Actually, Cooper is quite bearlike. At one point he says of Bancroft, "She looks at me as if I were a bear," and his pal Whitmore replies, "There's some comfort in bein' a bear in bear country."
There is a battle with the Indians, Jed heroically saves the day and the colonel is killed. Interestingly, when the Indians look like carrying the day, Whitmore's character shouts, "Back to the trees!" but Cooper cries out, "Back to the fort!"

This provokes a weak happy-ever-after ending, out of kilter with the rest of the film. Cooper is seen, in blue jacket, saluting the flag as Bancroft waits for him. Mann said that the ending was forced on him.

Though la Bancroft is not at her best, Preston was reliably excellent and as for Mature, this and his Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine are his best Western roles. Matinée idol Mature was in some ways an unlikely figure in the saddle and indeed he only made five oaters but he was surprisingly good in them.

So The Last Frontier a mixed bag. I myself don’t think it’s “big-budget junk” but nor do I think it has the power and intensity of the Mann/James Stewart Westerns, or indeed the first two Mann ones, Devil's Doorway or The Furies. It has weaknesses but it provokes thought and has real qualities too. Definitely worth a try.




  1. Probably not Mann's last western, if you count The Tin Star (1957), Man of the West (1958) and the remake of Cimarron (1960).

    1. I do indeed count those. Don't know how I made such a blunder. Thanks!