powered by AFI
Although his exceptional looks made him a star as a young man in the 1930s, Robert Taylor thought his famous face and physique were more of a liability than an asset, a gift he could not consider his own achievement. Although always a loyal and obedient employee (who stayed under contract to MGM for more than 20 years, long after his contemporaries had left), Taylor felt his handsomeness condemned him to leading man roles with little depth or demand on his rather limited talents (which he freely acknowledged). But as Taylor aged, he was given more challenging parts, and in The Last Hunt (1956), playing a truly villainous character, he turned in what many consider one of his very best performances.
The character he plays, Charlie Gilson, is a sadistic man who enjoys killing (to such a degree that one character in the story likens it to sexual ecstasy). He teams with a fellow buffalo hunter, a far more sympathetic character played by Stewart Granger, and the two men immediately clash, especially when it becomes apparent that Taylor's character gets a kick out of slaughtering bison AND people, especially defenseless Indians he accuses of stealing his horses. The conflict leads to a final showdown in which Taylor stalks Granger during a harsh winter storm.
The Last Hunt was filmed on location in Custer National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota, beautifully rendered by cinematographer Russell Harlan, who was responsible for the authentic, sweeping vision of dozens of Westerns, among them Red River (1948), The Big Sky (1952) and Rio Bravo (1959), all of them for Howard Hawks, the director with whom he worked most frequently. This film was directed by Richard Brooks, who is better known for such dark contemporary dramas as Blackboard Jungle (1955), In Cold Blood (1967) and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) and for his controversial rewriting of Tennessee Williams in the screen adaptations of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962).
The buffalo slaughter in the film is real; the protected animals were rapidly increasing in number and every year park wardens culled the herds to keep the amount of buffalo in line with available grazing land. At the time of production, it was standard practice to charge hunters a sizeable fee to come into the national park and shoot 50 or so of the animals. The hunting was intercut with shots of the stars shooting, although they did not take part in the actual killing. In fact in his autobiography, Granger said he and the crew were rather sickened by the whole thing, especially because the film required that the corpses be on hand for a number of days to complete necessary sequences. Since the extreme heat of the Black Hills location caused the bodies to decompose rapidly, the dead animals were loaded into refrigerated trucks each evening then dumped back onto the ground the following morning. Granger does not mention Taylor's reaction to this but notes how Brooks "seemed to revel in taking close shots of maggots crawling out of the corpses littering the plains or of the skinning and butchering of the stinking animals that had been shot days before."
The most difficult part of the shoot, however, was the final sequence, which was supposed to take place in the dead of winter. Obviously, production couldn't be shut down for several months until the weather changed, so the actors had to film their scenes in nearly 120 degrees dressed in heavy clothes and scarves, drinking gallons of water to keep from dehydrating as the sweat poured off them in buckets. Granger passed out twice and had to have the clothes ripped off him. The surrounding hills were sprayed in white powder to give the impression of snow, and airplane engines were used to create gale winds, filled with gypsum to simulate a blizzard.
Anne Bancroft, then a relatively unknown young actress, was originally cast in the role of the Indian Girl eventually played by Debra Paget. Very early on in production, a scene was filmed in which Granger was supposed to sweep the girl into his saddle and ride off. At the crucial moment, the horse bucked and Bancroft landed painfully hard on the saddle pummel. Her lawyers sued MGM and got her long-term contract cancelled as part of the settlement. Granger jokingly said he was responsible for freeing her from a career of playing thankless roles as Indian girls for MGM.
During the shoot, the British-born Granger became attracted to the idea of life in the open air of the American West, especially since he and then-wife Jean Simmons were starting a family and not wanting to raise their children in a Hollywood setting. Granger befriended one of the wranglers hired as extras and advisers, Elmer Black, who helped the British actor master a Western drawl. After filming was completed, Black also helped Granger find a suitable ranch property in the area.
Director: Richard Brooks
Producer: Dore Schary
Screenplay: Richard Brooks, based on the novel by Milton Lott
Cinematography: Russell Harlan
Editing: Ben Lewis
Art Direction: Merrill Pye, Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Cast: Robert Taylor (Charlie Gilson), Stewart Granger (Sandy McKenzie), Lloyd Nolan (Woodfoot), Debra Paget (Indian Girl), Russ Tamblyn (Jimmy O'Brien).
C-104m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon.