The Last Frontier
Cast & Crew
In order to save their lives, a trio of rugged, Wyoming fur trappers--Jed Cooper, Gus and Mungo, an Indian--have to give up their horses to Chief Red Cloud and his band of Sioux Indians. Red Cloud explains that whites are no longer welcome in their territory because the "blue coats," members of the U.S. Cavalry, have been cutting down too many trees. Undaunted, the trappers march straight to Fort Shallan to get new horses, which they believe the Army rightfully owes to them. Capt. Riordan, the commanding officer, instead persuades them to take jobs as scouts, though Gus, the elder of the group who mistrusts progress and all civilizing efforts, fears they are walking into a trap. The trappers get drunk on whiskey, and while looking for more, Cooper barges into the home of Corinna Marston, the lovely wife of Col. Marston, who is away building the new Fort Medford. When Cooper informs her that her husband is a dead man if he is working in Red Cloud's territory, Corinna throws him out. Cooper then finds out from Riordan that Gus and Mungo were sent on a scouting mission in the area of Fort Medford and, furious, sets out to retrieve his friends. He finds Gus and Mungo camping out with Marston and his company, who fled the fort when it was burnt down by the Indians. Marston demands that Cooper return to the captain and bring back reinforcements, but Cooper refuses. Just then, the warring Indians arrive, and during the subsequent attack, Gus is injured. The surviving troops return to Fort Shallan, but Marston, who is a violent and bitter man, is determined to return to the frontier with all available troops to teach Red Cloud a lesson. When Riordan refuses to participate, Marston pulls rank on him, and Cooper is sent to scout Red Cloud's village, reporting back that several tribes have joined forces with him. Marston insists on going out anyway, and Capt. Clarke, a doctor, tells Marston to recount to Riordan, Cooper and Corinna the story of Shiloh, a Civil War battle in which Marston sent 1,500 men to their deaths. After Corinna, upset, leaves the room, Cooper finds her, kisses her and takes her to his room, telling her that he wants to "make her his woman." Later, Marston brings his men out to scout Red Cloud's camp, and when he falls into a bear trap, Cooper refuses to release him until he promises to leave the chief alone. Marston refuses to capitulate, so Cooper returns to the fort, where Corinna and Riordan denounce his treatment of Marston. Cooper rescues Marston, who immediately orders the entire company attired. Marston attempts to deliver a rousing speech to the men, but is heckled by a drunken Cooper, who has donned a stolen Army coat. Cooper runs from the fort and jokingly calls on Red Cloud, and when he tries to return to the fort's gates, he is attacked by Indians. After Cooper makes it back to the fort, Marston urges his sergeant to go to Cooper's room and attack him. The two fight, and Cooper pushes the sergeant off the roof to his death. When Marston announces his intention to hang him for the "crime," Cooper flees. Riordan confines Marston to his quarters, having requested his arrest from the chief officer of the area, but when Mungo returns with the dispatch, Riordan learns that his request has been denied. Mungo leaves the fort and finds a disgruntled Cooper in the woods. The troops headed by Marston enter Red Cloud's territory, and Cooper watches from the safety of the trees as scores of camouflaged Indians lie in wait. When Gus is sent ahead to scout, however, Cooper shoots a brave as he is about to kill the trapper. In the fighting that ensues, both Gus and Marston are shot and killed, and Cooper tells the surviving troops to run back to Fort Shallan. There, artillery fire is used on the Indians, who finally retreat. Later, Cooper is made sergeant, and now that he is civilized enough to be her man, he takes his hat off to Corinna.
Robert St. Angelo
S. M. Grannis
Russell S. Hughes
Mrs. Caroline A. Mason
The Last Frontier
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
The Last Frontier
The Last Frontier on DVD
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
The Last Frontier on DVD
We never fished nor killed any more than we could eat. And we're not Blue Coats. Why are they taking it out on us?- Jed Cooper
Civilization?- Jed Cooper
Civilization is creepin' up on us, lads. The Blue Coats aren't satisfied with gobblin' up all the lands east of the 'Sippi. No, they won't stop till they've pushed us over the Rockies and into the Pacific Ocean. It's a drownin' fate that awaits us all. These are calamitous times, Jed, calamitous times.- Gus
The working title of this film was The Gilded Rooster. The title card of the viewed print reads: "Columbia Pictures Corporation presents Savage Wilderness (formerly titled Last Frontier)." According to modern sources, Savage Wilderness was the film's television release title. Hollywood Reporter production charts list Kathryn Grant in the cast, but she did not appear in the released film, and her role was taken over by Anne Bancroft. Reviews noted that location shooting took place in Popocatepetl, Mexico.
According to information in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, a scene in which Bancroft's character repeatedly stabbed an Indian was considered too brutal and was eliminated from the final film. The Hollywood Reporter review noted that the film marked the second time that Manuel Donde, who plays "Red Cloud," had been made "to look like a lunkhead by the Columbia scenario department" even though the Sioux chief was a "Native American genius." For more information about Red Cloud, see the entry above for The Indian Fighter.
Released in United States on Video May 18, 1994
Released in United States Winter January 1956
Released in United States Winter January 1956
Released in United States on Video May 18, 1994