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The Last Frontier

The Last Frontier(1956)

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With The Last Frontier (1955), Anthony Mann took something of a turn inward. Since 1950, the talented director had made five exceptional westerns starring James Stewart, all of which have strong plots driven by Stewart's relentless and even psychotic characters. In those movies, which include Bend of the River (1952) and The Naked Spur (1953) the landscape is a strong character as well, establishing and reflecting the emotions of the human characters. The Last Frontier does take place in the wilderness (its alternate title, in fact, is Savage Wilderness), but its specific setting is entirely in and around a cavalry fort. The result is a movie with a strangely insular feel extending to the story itself, which compared to the Stewart westerns is somewhat lacking in momentum.

Victor Mature plays a trapper who has always co-existed peacefully with the Indians - until the opening scene, when they steal his horses and supplies. He and his two comrades (including James Whitmore) immediately walk to a nearby cavalry outpost demanding repayment. Their logical reasoning is that it is the existence of the "bluecoats" who have now turned the Indians against all white men. The presiding officer (Guy Madison) is sympathetic and hires the men as scouts. Conflict, however, comes with the arrival of Col. Marston (Robert Preston), who is obsessed with attacking the Indians no matter what. Mature knows the Indians and the territory well enough to realize that this is foolish, and in fact all military logic goes against it, but Marston will not be swayed.

Further tension arises in the form of a romance between Mature and the colonel's wife (Anne Bancroft). This is hardly the most convincing aspect of an already shaky script, but it allows Mann to get at what is really the heart of the movie - the contrast between the coarse, animal-like Mature, and the mannered, civilized soldiers. It's a battle between civilization and untamed wilderness in all their forms, and it comes across in the dialogue and the visual style (and even the costumes). Mann's approach is very intelligent - as in the Stewart westerns, he uses space to define character, showing for example how free and comfortable Mature is in the open, and how constricted and ineffective he is in the fort. Mann creates extraordinary tension in the frame, as in the opening when Indians slowly surround Mature and his companions. A scene where Col. Marston falls into a bearpit is also dynamically shot. For discerning viewers, these kinds of stylistic elements will make up for the movie's limp screenplay.

In five years time Mann would be directing epics like El Cid (1961). The Last Frontier shows glimmers of his epic style beginning to peek through. Mann lets his camera linger on the doors of the fort opening up, for example, and on rows of soldiers lined up at attention. He emphasizes the majesty of such images, if only here and there throughout the picture. It's almost as if he is preparing, or practicing, for the next phase of his career. Even the final attack scene is shot to emphasize large numbers of soldiers and Indians in the frame, and notably, there is no 1-on-1 shootout as in the Stewart films. The last scene of the movie is unsatisfying and feels dishonest, but Mann said this ending was forced upon him by the studio. Presumably, Mann also had no say in the selection of the awful title song by Lester Lee and Ned Washington, sung by Rusty Draper.

As tends to be the case with lesser-known westerns from Sony Home Entertainment, there are no extras here, and the transfer is acceptable though by no means spectacular. Sony has generally been doing a very poor job over the years in selecting and packaging its classic westerns for DVD. Where, for example, are director Budd Boetticher's Columbia westerns starring Randolph Scott, such as The Tall T (1957) and Ride Lonesome (1959)? Their exclusion from DVD is criminal, especially when gorgeously restored prints have existed at the UCLA Film and Television Archives for many years. Perhaps the upcoming Paramount DVD release of Boetticher's Seven Men From Now (1956) - as well as an upcoming TCM original documentary on Boetticher - will have an effect. At least The Last Frontier is fairly priced, and the movie is presented in widescreen, letterboxed format - extra-important here as Mann's compositions are especially prone to ruin by panning and scanning.

For more information about The Last Frontier, visit Sony Pictures. To order The Last Frontier, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold