Oct 11, 2018

On Blu-ray: Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger in The Last Hunt (1956)

Based on a novel by Milton Lott, but featuring real buffalo herd thinning, the Richard Brooks-directed The Last Hunt (1956) is an unusual mix of fact and fiction. It comes from a period where westerns took on more moral complexity. Heroes are less certain, violence isn't as superficial, and a feeling of weariness is in the air. The film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, with a few vintage special features.

Stewart Granger stars as Sandy McKenzie, a skilled buffalo hunter who is aching to get out of the business. He is dragged back in by the cruel Charlie Gibson (Robert Taylor), who takes pleasure in the killing that increasingly repulses Sandy. Gibson also kidnaps drunken skinner Woodfoot (Lloyd Nolan) to join them, while Sandy hires the half-native ginger Jimmy (Russ Tamblyn) to skin as well.

They are an efficient team, setting up stands and piling up skins, working as well together professionally as they clash personally. It’s stunning to watch the massive herds of buffalo in their crosshairs. The footage was captured during the annual herd thinning at Badlands National Park and Custer State Park in South Dakota and the energy of the animals is palpable. It makes it all the more brutal to watch these magnificent beasts sink to their knees one at a time, their power extinguished, as the men ambush them.

Gibson doesn’t reserve his killing for animals, murdering a tribe of natives who he believes have stolen his horses. He spares a young woman (Debra Paget) and her child, forcing her to cook for the group. She is resigned to her fate, eventually falling in love with the gentler Sandy.

There’s a deep sense of loss and resignation to The Last Hunt. Sandy, Woodfoot, and Jimmy are all participants in a violent profession, but they are essentially tender. They are disturbed by Gibson’s sadism; his job as much a joy for him as a way to make money. Paget is given little to do in this scenario, but even she has more courage and strength than her captor, making her less passive than she seems at first. Tamblyn gets a little more opportunity to develop his conflicted, mixed-race character, but is also a mostly passive presence.

Taylor is at his best here: grizzled, mean, and yet still a little pretty. He’s nasty, but you can’t look away. That said, Nolan steals the show as a battered, but still joyfully messy character that’s a lot more fun than the rigid men he portrayed for most of his career. He is so uncharacteristically loose and relaxed that he is almost unrecognizable. Granger is a solid presence alongside them. While he not as commanding in his performance, he's appealingly dignified in his pursuit of decency.

It’s a brutal film, but infused with a compelling moodiness which the cast embodies effectively.

Special features on the disc include a pair of TV promo spots for the film, one which includes a brief glimpse of Tamblyn’s incredible tumbling skills. There’s also an original theatrical trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review.To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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