Time for another Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, the series in which two blogger friends (yours truly and Mike’s Take on the Movies) pick films for the other to watch & review once a month.
As a big Robert Taylor fan, The Last Hunt (1956) was quite the experience for me, I wonder how it is I could have missed out on one of his best performances all this time. Taylor plays the brutal killing machine “Charlie,” who talks the buffalo hunting legend Stewart Granger into one last hunt which promises to be productive and profitable. The men have a tense partnership from the start, as Taylor soon reveals his dislike of Indians and an insatiable lust for killing, which he calls “the only real proof you’re alive,” while the “spooked” Granger expresses concern about the vanishing herd and reveals he suffers from self-loathing and a guilty conscience. Things get more troubled because neither man has a healthy view of hunting anymore: Granger has lost his stomach for it, while Taylor feeds his hunger for killing by mowing down every buffalo in sight, and lusting after gunplay with people as well. In one telling scene Taylor refuses a fair trade with a Indian friend of Tamblyn’s–exchanging a rare white buffalo skin for two fine ponies–but positively lights up at the prospect of a gunfight with the same items as a prize.
Granger does a solid job playing the conflicted gentleman who goes against his better judgement and instincts about Taylor and hunting. For all his own troubles he remains the class act and voice of reason throughout, and as he suffers through and then finds his way out of this entanglement he makes for a powerful co-star and foil for Taylor’s character. There’s a fascinating dynamic that comes of casting these two equally mature men (as opposed to having either a younger hothead or idealist, say); they come from not dissimilar circumstances and experiences, and so they become two rich characters down different paths in their own right as well as embodying two forces and attitudes in society. Their relationship is not one of hate– Granger even claims to have an understanding and some pity for Taylor–but they’re destined to destroy each other somehow. I love the scenes when Granger goes to town to sell the hides, and gets in that drunken saloon brawl where he sees Taylor in everybody he swings for and knocks down–he never loses his cigar! Very impressive feat.
There’s good support by Lloyd Nolan as Granger’s old friend and expert skinner who’s lost one leg to the harsh winters (foreshadowing!) a weathered soul (pun intended) who answers almost every insult and tough situation with a loud laugh (and sometimes accordion accompaniment) that drives Taylor crazy. Russ Tamblyn plays a half-breed who cuts off his braids in an effort to be more white and joins the hunting party, forging a friendship with Granger. Debra Paget is a native girl and young mother that Taylor brings back to camp after he guns down some of he tribe as revenge for their horse-thieving. Paget does her best to reject Taylor’s persistent advances while Granger slowly falls in love with her.
Taylor is outstanding playing this complex character, really less a character than a mess of contradictions barely held together by the gravitational pull of his anger. He hates people yet can’t be without them, he’s desperate and needy, demands respect while giving none, responds with violence whenever challenged, holds fast to his prejudices and suspicions. Each kill for him is an attempt to satisfy some deep personal rage which of course no number of kills can do. By the time that precious white buffalo hide disappears, as do Granger and Paget soon after, Taylor is an obsessive, paranoid and murderous madman, mistaking thunder for hundreds of thousands of buffalo, and finally relentlessly hunting down his former companions. Which brings us to that unforgettably cold ending. Taylor gets some warning, and the viewer some more foreshadowing, of his possible fate in a previous scene when he observes how fast the moisture-laden buffalo hides freeze into a hard shell. But it’s not in his nature to pay attention or heed warnings he doesn’t like to hear.
The Last Hunt is of its era in the sometimes too obvious social commentary, and it has a deliberate pace that gets slow at a few points, but you can’t fault its intentions nor its attempt to reach ahead of its time in terms of realism and themes (thanks to director Richard Brooks). Brutality and bleakness fit this story, and Taylor’s excellent performance and his character’s decline make for a fine western and absolutely essential Robert Taylor viewing.