The Last Frontier

(USA - 1955)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Victor Mature, Guy Madison, Robert Preston, James Whitmore, Anne Bancroft
Genre: Western
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Philip Yordan & Russell S. Hughes from Richard Emery Roberts' novel The Gilded Rooster
Cinematography: William Mellor
Composer: Leigh Harline
Runtime: 98 minutes

Anthony Mann’s first work of the post James Stewart era features a less talented though more suitably cast Victor Mature as a freedom loving ruffian trapper raised in the Oregon woods that, until recently, were Native American territory. Raised by the “older” Gus (quite Mature for the role at 42, James Whitmore is actually 8 years Victor’s junior), who imparted all his wisdom on him over the years, and utilizing Native American pal Mongo (Pat Hogan) as their translator, the three trappers have lived neither as white men nor Native Americans. They are simply mountain men existing in harmony with each other, and who and whatever they come across. That is until the cavalry arrives to eventually steal the land, ending the era of freedom as manifest destiny driven white man tries to spread the era of “civilization”.

Chief Red Cloud (Manuel Donde) suddenly claiming all the trappers booty makes it pointless to keep working the area, so the wise Captain Riordan (Guy Madison) convinces them to sign up as civilian scouts when they petition for reparations. Childish Mature falls in love with the soldiers uniform, and strives to earn it to the point he’s blinded to the fact it’s not worthy of him. The military will not only use them, but also force civilized ways upon the trio.

Less than thrilled with boundaries and divisions, Mann has cinematographer William C. Mellor focus on the confining aspects of the fort. This strategy extends to the unbroken crane and tracking shots utilized in the wilderness scenes, imposing barriers that divide the sharp dressed interlopers from the untamed surroundings.

Jed Cooper (Mature) is brilliantly effective in the free exteriors, but inept in the constricted interiors. Unfortunately, repressed, kept woman Corinna Marston (a ridiculous looking Anne Bancroft, who apparently manages to get regular shipments of peroxide despite living miles from even reinforcements in an uninhabited 1860’s military outpost) never leaves the fort. Jed is crude and extremely awkward with his new (first?) love since, beyond everything else, he’s seen so few women. Their romance is the last hope for the rustic and refined to coexist.

Corinna is married to glory hunting Colonel Frank Marston (Robert Preston), a kind of General Custer who never accomplished anything. A representative of the new order, Marston doesn’t respect the enemy enough to feel them worthy of the effort required to attempt to understand them. They are different, so they are animals, and animals are made for the slaughter.

Marston is most obviously linked to Henry Fonda’s Lt. Col. Owen Thursday in John Ford’s classic Fort Apache, but he’s really the James Stewart character. A driven antisocial, borderline psychopathic loner who is incapable of any form of compromise, if not for the uniform he could be Stewart’s Howard Kemp in Mann’s amazing The Naked Spur. Hell bent on killing Indians, not due to anything they’ve done, but rather the West Point grad feels snubbed and disrespected having been given this meaningless bastion while the Civil War is raging. Valuing courage and daring while disregarding logic and reason, Marston refuses to wait for reinforcements, advantageous weather, or his untrained band of misfit rookies to figure out which direction to point their rifles.

Despite his overreliance on his unsuitable crazed eye glances, Mature gives one of his finest performances as the sociable but defiantly independent rascal. However, it’s Guy Madison who tends to steal the show, constantly walking the tight rope of following the orders of his superior officer Marston, who seizes control, while hoping to usurp them since he realizes Colonel Charging Bull is a loon. Riordan tries to discipline Jed, the man who goes his own way, while maintaining the friendship.

There are at least a few problems with The Last Frontier, the most glaring of which is the dialogue is so obviously scripted. There are too many scenes where the actors are forced to state character and plot points, which is bad enough in a movie where few are even supposed to be educated, but particularly awful when combined with Robert Preston’s line reading. The subplots are muddled, but there are enough of them that they don’t worry about resolving every one, causing the direction to become less obvious and the payoffs we do get less by the numbers. The studio imposed ending somewhat betrays the dark tone of the piece, but doesn’t completely destroy the film like the executives have been known to.

Thematically Mann tries to do too much and visually he could be said to purposely do too little (by his standards), but Mann succeeded at everything he ever tried except perhaps epics. The Last Frontier is not only a rather unique entry in his filmography, but how many films have you seen starring a mountain man, much less production code films where the mountain man gets away with having an affair with a married civilized woman?



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