The Last Frontier
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Anthony Mann is remembered for his Westerns. Victor Mature, Robert Preston and Anne Bancroft are not. Yet in their hands the whole becomes more than the sum of its allegorical parts in The Last Frontier (1955). Mann ranks right behind genre master John Ford, and if The Last Frontier isn't the equal of Mann's landmark Jimmy Stewart Westerns - Winchester '73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953) and The Man from Laramie (1955) -- it's nonetheless a neat encapsulation of so-called civilization invading America's Western frontier. Yes, there's the obligatory big battle between the warring braves of Red Cloud and the Union army venturing from its outpost. But essentially, The Last Frontier is a parable of domestication.
At its center is Victor Mature's roughhewn mountain man, Jed Cooper. He and his fur trapper pals, James Whitmore's Gus and Pat Hogan's Mungo, are entirely at home in their environment. In the wide open spaces he knows and loves, Jed is always at ease, always cool, always knows just what to do. In the opening scene, when he and others, making camp, find themselves surrounded by Red Cloud (Manuel Donde) and his warriors, they don't overreact. They simply give Red Cloud what he wants - their rifles, horses and furs. Suddenly vulnerable, they reluctantly head for the nearby army fort that has Red Cloud up in arms.
It's not their first choice. Gus, the trio's father figure, says: "Civilization is creepin' up on us, lads. These are calamitous times." They are rather more calamitous for Jed, who undergoes the most change. Ushered into the fort, they're hired as scouts. But the assurance Jed feels outdoors deserts him utterly within the fort's literal and figurative confines. His clumsiness and crudity are reinforced by Mature's appearance. Shaggy, hulking, clad in skins and furs, the grace and fluidity of his movements in the terrain he knows are replaced by a clumsy stagger, his uneasiness reinforced by a plunge into drunkenness. He's stung when the wife of the fort's commanding colonel (Anne Bancroft) reacts to him with disgust. "Sometimes she looks at me as if I'm a bear," Jed says, looking wounded, feelings hurt. The first step on the slippery slope down which he plummets is that he wants her to like him.
He is something of a bear. The often underrated Mature's range wasn't great, but put him in the right noir (Kiss of Death, 1947), or in the right campy Biblical epic (Samson and Delilah, 1949), and he'd get the job done. Sometimes he surpassed himself. His brooding Doc Holliday in Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946) made it the best of the many Wyatt Earp Westerns. Here he's a sort of distant relative of Eugene O'Neill's Hairy Ape, a primitive in every way, but a sensitive one, and vulnerable. It opens him to being sucked into the civilized life. "They'll snare you," warns the wary Gus. And so they do. Mann isn't at all celebrating the taming of the West. He's ambivalent. The Last Frontier's ending, with Mature in a blue army jacket, having been recruited into the ranks, saluting while Bancroft smiles down on him from a platform above as an inanely upbeat song blares over the soundtrack, was, Mann has said, forced on him. Like Gus's experienced trapper, Mann was not disinclined to see civilization as a trap.
Mature's face is a map of his Noble Savage's mix of innocence, yearning and uncluttered directness. This puts him at something of a loss at how to pursue his attraction for what in an American Western of the 1950s was virtually forbidden fruit - the colonel's wife. That this plot strand didn't collapse into ludicrousness is due chiefly to Bancroft's ability to suggest banked fires, to make us believe that at the same time she's repulsing the newcomer, the intensity of her turndown is partly due to her fear of the attraction she feels for him. Bancroft - virtually unrecognizable as a blond here - essentially considered herself more of a stage actress than a film actress, and her stage training in sustained concentration rescues her character from stereotype.
Much of it is tied to her husband in the film, Robert Preston's colonel, away on a mission when the trappers arrive, but back in time to precipitate several kinds of conflict. Preston is interesting here, too, pulling the colonel away from standard-issue psychotic to a Captain Ahab-like obsessive. He feels shamed, exiled to the West while the Civil War still rages because he stubbornly led a cavalry charge against an artillery barrage, causing him to be known thereafter as The Butcher of Shiloh. Not that he learned his lesson. Filled with rage and desperately needing to vindicate himself, he ignores the inadvisability of mounting an attack against Red Cloud's tribe on its own ground. "Victory does not go to the cautious," he says, grim-lipped, barely concealing the mad glint in his eye -- or the fact that slaughter often is the fate of the incautious.
He also harbors his share of conflict. To Preston's colonel, no less than to Mature's savage (the film was retitled "Savage Wilderness" when it was sold to TV), the blue tunic of the Union army means a lot. When Bancroft tells him, "I married a man, not a uniform," he replies, referring to the uniform: "I am not a man without this." He's just another man whose life is his job, which he sees as doing what he can for genocide. Mature's trapper doesn't need the coat to feel he's a man. He just wants it to make Bancroft like him more. When he sees her framed photograph of the colonel, he says: "I guess you have to have a fancy uniform like this to get a woman like you." What the two men have in common is that neither understands Bancroft's frontierswoman.
If the opposing views of the significance of the uniform - Mature sheds it in disgust at one point, only to ultimately succumb to it and its significance - reflect Mann's capacity for irony, so does the bear metaphor. Sensing that Bancroft doesn't love her husband, and that the soldiers fear he'll lead them to their deaths, Jed stands smiling over the colonel when the colonel, ignoring his experienced guide's advice and rushing headlong into the forest on a reconnaissance mission, falls into a bear pit. To the survivalist Jed, the answer is simple - leave him there to die. But when he goes back to the fort, his wife won't have this easy exit. "It was what you wanted, wasn't it?" "Yes," she replies, "but not this way." "I did it for you, and the rest of you," he cries, "and now I'm not clean enough to touch you." He goes back and pulls the colonel out. The latter gloats: "She wouldn't let you do it, would she?"
Not that The Last Frontier is a closet drama. Mann always photographed the outdoors interestingly, and he did here, too, although the wide-screen appetite for extra lighting isn't always met. The film often looks dark, as if shot through filters. Mann shoots from below, shoots from above, shoots through trees, fills his foregrounds with vivid details - a concealing boulder, a brave's headdress feather. Shooting took place in Mexico, and snow-capped Mt. Popocatapetl looms with majestic indifference above all. One ironic shot comes when Mature's scout calmly sits atop a tree watching the Indians watching the troops. Later, when the slaughter gets going, the film's symbolic divide is epitomized by an exchange between Jed and Gus. "Back to the trees," Gus cries. "Back to the fort," is Jed's reply, and this is where you know the film, for all its obvious thematic rigging, works because you feel with a pang that Mature's retreat - in all senses of the word - signals a distinct bit of wildness departing the Wild West.
Producer: William Fadiman
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Philip Yordan, Russell S. Hughes; Richard Emery Roberts (novel "The Gilded Rooster")
Cinematography: William Mellor
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Music: Leigh Harline
Film Editing: Al Clark
Cast: Victor Mature (Jed Cooper), Guy Madison (Captain Glenn Riordan), Robert Preston (Col. Frank Marston), James Whitmore (Gus), Anne Bancroft (Corinna Marston), Russell Collins (Captain Bill Clarke), Peter Whitney (Sergeant Major Decker), Pat Hogan (Mungo)
by Jay Carr
Anthony Mann, by Jeanine Basinger, Wesleyan University Press
A Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson, William Morrow
Seesaw: A Dual Biography of Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks, by William Holtzman, Doubleday