powered by AFI
With his love of horses, life as a rancher, and interest in the American West, one would think that Ronald Reagan had made lots of Westerns in his first fourteen years as an actor. Amazingly, The Last Outpost (1951) was his first real Western. Reagan was coming off the comedy Louisa (1950) and the drama Storm Warning (1951) and was anxious to get in the saddle. As he wrote in his autobiography, "Louisa was a healthy plus to any list of screen credits, but I still wanted a crack at that outdoor stuff." He was freelancing around several studios at this point, when "out of the blue" came The Last Outpost at Paramount.
The producers were William Pine and William Thomas, longstanding B-movie makers who had earned the nickname "The Dollar Bills" for their penny-pinching ways. "Working for the two Bills meant keeping to a schedule that didn't allow much time for socializing between setups," wrote Reagan. The Bills up to now had specialized in low-budget action movies that often starred Richard Arlen - nothing too notable, but they made money. The Last Outpost was their first "A-" picture, with a relatively big budget. It performed so well at the box office that the Bills brought Reagan and co-star Rhonda Fleming back for another movie, Hong Kong (1952).
In The Last Outpost, Reagan and Bruce Bennett play brothers who, as cavalry officers, fight on opposite sides during the Civil War - Reagan for the South and Bennett for the North. Reagan goes to Arizona to intercept gold shipments that are bound for the Union, while Bennett is sent to defend them. Ultimately, they must join forces to fight the Apaches. The story concept is based on fact and had been the subject for at least one earlier Western starring Errol Flynn, Virginia City (1940).
The Last Outpost was a credit to the genre, with good location photography by Loyal Griggs (who would win an Oscar® for Shane two years later) and solid performances all around, including venerable actor Bruce Bennett and "the Gipper" himself [a reference to Reagan's 1940 role as football star George Gipp in Knute Rockne, All American). Currently 98 years old, Bennett has appeared in well over 100 films dating back to 1931. (Until 1940, he was credited under his real name, Herman Brix.)
Reagan took great pleasure in being able to ride his own favorite horse, Tarbaby, in this picture. He'd ridden the mare on Stallion Road (1947) and taken such a liking to her that he bought her. For this film, he persuaded Paramount to ship the horse to Arizona, where she impressed skeptical wranglers with her abilities and endurance. As Reagan himself recalled, "That first morning some of the local cowboys, outfitted as soldiers, had a few derogatory remarks to make about Tarbaby and what she'd be like after a workout in that hundred-degree desert heat. Those boys just didn't know that a thoroughbred can do anything better than any other horse except quit. By sundown there were picture horses scattered all over the cactus patch, so beat we had trouble mustering enough for background in the close shots. But old Baby was not only picture-acting - she was kicking those beat critters out of the way. 'Twas a proud moment for her owner."
Producer: William H. Pine, William C. Thomas
Director: Lewis R. Foster
Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring, Winston Miller, George Worthing Yates, based on a story by David Lang
Cinematography: Loyal Griggs
Art Direction: Lewis H. Creber
Music: Lucien Cailliet
Film Editing: Howard A. Smith
Cast: Ronald Reagan (Capt. Vance Britten), Rhonda Fleming (Julie McQuade), Bruce Bennett (Col. Jeb Britton), Bill Williams (Sgt. Tucker), Noah Beery Jr. (Sgt. Calhoun), Peter Hansen (Lt. Crosby), Hugh Beaumont (Lt. Fenton).
by Jeremy Arnold