Friday, March 18, 2011

Anthony Mann's THE LAST FRONTIER (1955)

Anthony Mann is widely regarded as the best directors of westerns during the 1950s, the golden age of the genre in America. But while his run of films with Jimmy Stewart have entered the canon, and his one film with Gary Cooper, Man of the West, is often ranked on the same level, The Last Frontier is for some reason the neglected cousin of the Mann western family. To be more specific, the reason it's neglected is Victor Mature. Compared to Stewart and Cooper, not to mention Henry Fonda (The Tin Star) or Glenn Ford (Cimarron), Mature is a much less credible actor. He remains identified with Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah, which despite its blockbuster popularity made Mature a laughingstock as legends spread of his cowardice on set and Groucho Marx's comment that Mature's breasts were bigger than Hedy Lamarr's. If he's remembered at all now, it's as a bad actor, but I've liked some of his performances, from the film noir Kiss of Death to another sword-and-sandal saga, Delmer Daves's Demetrius and the Gladiators. It might help Last Frontier's reputation if more people knew that it features one of Mature's best performances, but the film has problems of its own that aren't the actor's fault.

Mature plays Jed Cooper, a trapper who works the Sioux country with his mentor Gus (James Whitmore) and his full-blooded Indian pal Mungo (Pat Hogan). They get a cool introduction in which they react to the menacing arrival of a war band by sitting down for a snack to show that they're not scared. They may not be scared, but it's not like they can face down these suddenly hostile warriors. Instead, they're compelled to give up the furs they've accumulated, the horses they're loaded on, and their guns, now that Chief Red Cloud has decided that white men are no longer welcome on tribal land. They're no longer welcome because the bluecoats have built a fort, and it's to the fort that Jed and his crew head in search of compensation, despite Gus's reservations.

The cavalry can't repay them for what the Indians took, but it can pay them to become scouts. Jed likes the idea of the power and status that comes with a uniform, while Mungo is happy as long as he can get booze. Jed is also turned on by the lady of the fort, Corinna Marston (Anne Bancroft), the commanding colonel's wife. Like his men, or most of them, Col. Marston (Robert Preston) is stationed on the frontier because he's not good enough to fight in the Civil War. He'd had his chance, actually, and earned the nickname "the Butcher of Shiloh" with it. It wasn't Rebs he butchered, but his own men through reckless leadership. Marston is unrepentant, telling anyone who'll listen that he'd take the same chance again, and wants redemption through a decisive victory over Red Cloud. With typical bluecoat arrogance, he underrates "savages" as strategists and makes arrangements to lead his men into a Little Bighorn style slaughter.

Jed confronts the Marstons: Corrina (Anne Bancroft, above) and the Colonel (Robert Preston, trapped below).

Jed recognizes Marston for a fool but is torn between a growing sense of responsibility to the fort and a desire to be rid of the Colonel in order to have Corinna for himself. He claims to have nothing against Marston personally, but he'd plainly be happy to see him dead. The feeling eventually becomes mutual as Jed leaves Marston in a bear trap, only to be guilt-tripped by Corinna into going back and rescuing him. Annoyed by her mixed signals, Jed slaps her before he leaves. Afterward, he becomes increasingly disruptive, finally quitting the fort after Marston's henchman tries to kill him. He knows that Marston will lead his men to destruction, despite the efforts of a lone sensible officer (Guy Madison), but that's none of his business anymore, except that Gus is still with them (Mungo followed Jed out but went his own way) and the opinion of at least one other person at the fort still matters to him....

Mature gives his all in a boisterous, swaggering performance -- at least it's a lot more than he often gave in movies. Jed symbolizes the eventual civilization of the Last Frontier as he gradually learns loyalty to things larger than himself and disciplines himself accordingly. He's not unlike the typical conflicted Mann protagonist, but without Stewart's cool grimness; Mature's a wild man by comparison and the best thing in the movie.

Mann makes the most of his locations, of course, as does cinematographer William C. Mellor. The fort setting and the frontier warfare with "barbarians" anticipates what Mann would do on a larger scale, if not with much more success, in The Fall of the Roman Empire nearly a decade later. What hurts him here is a romance angle that has no good reason to exist, except that Columbia Pictures probably insisted on it. If there's a weakness in Mature's performance, it's that he has no chemistry whatsoever with Anne Bancroft, who doesn't seem herself in this episode from her first, failed tour of duty in Hollywood. Jed's affair with Corinna is an artificial complication that his conflict with Col. Marston doesn't need. We know it doesn't need the extra stuff because it's been done before. The conflict between Mature and Robert Preston is basically the conflict between John Wayne and Henry Fonda in John Ford's Fort Apache, only more forcefully expressed across a greater social gulf.

In the end, however, The Last Frontier is a strange synthesis of Fort Apache and, of all things, Gunga Din. Imagine a Gunga Din remake in which the title character not only survives but wins, and you have the finish of Mann's movie. A lone figure is about to ride into an ambush that'll preface a general slaughter of unsuspecting troops. The uncivilized Jed can save the day (and his friend) and alert the troops by firing his rifle. In the end he saves neither Gus nor Marston, but instead of a dead honorary corporal, Jed ends up a live sergeant. Mann usually opts for the redemptive happy ending in his westerns, but this time it seems too neat and too convenient for the hero. The film is simply too romantic to rank among Mann's best work or the great westerns of the decade, but even an inferior Mann western has a lot going for it. Between Mann and Mature, this one has enough to justify a look.


dfordoom said...

I haven't seen much of Victor Mature but he was excellent in The Shanghai Gesture.

Sam Juliano said...

"In the end, however, The Last Frontier is a strange synthesis of Fort Apache and, of all things, Gunga Din. Imagine a Gunga Din remake in which the title character not only survives but wins, and you have the finish of Mann's movie."

Indeed Samuel, that's an excellent analogy. With your strong regard for Mature's work here, I was thinking earlier in the review that you were preparing to place this film on par with the Stewart-Mann collaborations, the one celebrated Cooper-Mann alliance or the ones brining Henry Fonda or Glenn Ford into Mann-directed westerns. I'd also enter to add Walter Huston (The Furies) and Robert Taylor (Devil's Doorway) to this mix. But soon enough you admit he's less credible. I guess I appreciated him most in THE ROBE, though of course he is most famous for SAMSON. That hysterical Groucho Marx quip is telling. In any case, alluding to what you observe subsequently, I'll agree this is at least worth a look (I was fortunate enough to see a beautiful widescreen print at the Film Forum last summer as part of the Mann festival) for Mellor's striking cinematography alone. It's definitely the weakest Mann western, but as you wisely suggest, even with serious flaws it's impresively crafted in vital ways that would make a western desirable.

Samuel Wilson said...

d, Mature was also a good sport in Head. I also saw him in My Darling Clementine, but that was so long ago that I don't really retain any strong impression of his work.

Sam, if I recall right Mature's pecs came in for more mockery once presented in Cinemascope, but his two turns as Demetrius were probably his best work in sword-and-sandal mode.