How you’ll feel about MGM’s “The Last Hunt” (1956), a
grim depiction of the decimation of the buffalo herds out west in the 1880s,
depends on how you feel about actually seeing buffalo shot down before your
eyes while the cameras rolled. Writer/director Richard Brooks wanted the film to
be a searing indictment of the men who ravaged the western frontier, especially
those who made their living hunting bison. For the sake of authenticity, he and
producer Dore Schary went out on location to Custer National Park, South
Dakota, where they still have a small herd of buffalo. They got some
spectacular footage of the buffalo stampeding over the Black Hills and had
government permission to film during the annual “thinning of the herd,” when sharpshooters
are invited to kill a limited number of buffs to keep them from overpopulating.
As a result. there are scenes in “The Last Hunt” in which we see buffalo
hunters Charlie Gilson (Robert Taylor) and Sandy McKenzie (Stewart Granger)
shooting down a dozen or more of the majestic beasts as they sit peacefully
unaware by a watering hole. It is isn’t a reenactment. It’s real and it’s disturbing
But that was Brooks’ intent. He wanted to show how greed
and hatred of the Indian brought the buffalo to near extinction. Buffalo hides
not only brought the hunters a good price but in their minds a dead buffalo
meant less meat for the Indians. Brooks personifies these attitudes most
vividly in the psychopathic Charlie Gilson. He is a man who hates everything,
especially buffalo and Indians. He gets a real kick out of killing, too. He
says it makes him feel alive. Taylor is convincing as a truly bad man, although
his performance is somewhat one-dimensional. In most of the scenes, he’s either
drunk and surly or just plain mean and surly.
On the other hand, McKenzie is a gentler soul who only
agrees to go on the hunt when his small herd of cattle is wiped out by a
buffalo stampede. He has no animosity against Native Americans and keeps
telling Charlie he needs to chill out. Granger gives a good performance as a
nice guy, but he’s almost too nice to be believable. Also in the hunting party
are Lloyd Nolan as Woodfoot, a skinner with a peg leg and Russ Tamblyn as
Jimmy, a redheaded half-breed, whom Charlie can barely tolerate. Woodfoot could
have been an Ahab-type character with a grudge against buffalo for losing his
leg, but he’s more philosophical than that. He’s seen a lot. He explains
Charlie’s hatred for Indians to Jimmy by showing how much alike they are. He
says Charlie eats without a fork, just like an Indian, he’s free with his women
just like an Indian, he even blows his nose in his fingers like an Indian. “But you see, Charlie don’t like himself very
much,” Woodfoot says, “so it’s only natural he’d hate Indians.”
The four men manage an uneasy coexistence until their
pack mules are stolen one night by a small band of roving Indians. Sandy and
Woodfoot are willing to let it go, but Charlie rides off after them with blood
in his eye. He tracks them down, kills them and wounds an Indian Girl (Debra
Paget) traveling with a small boy. He brings the girl and boy back to camp and beds
down with her, much to Sandy’s dislike. Charlie gets drunk and mistreats the
girl, while Sandy seethes, but remains silent. Sandy and the Indian girl begin
to get closer, however, when Charlie’s not around or just passed out and
tension slowly builds.
Things come to a head when Sandy hesitates to shoot a
white buffalo because he knows it has religious significance to the Indians.
Charlie has no such qualms. He knows the hide will bring a price of $2,000. He
kills it and now both the Indian girl and the white buffalo hide become the
sources of conflict that eventually leads to a violent and chilling climax.
“The Last Hunt” is an interesting film made by an
interesting director. Like some of Richard Brooks’ other films, such as “In
Cold Blood” and “Bite the Bullet,” it’s hard-hitting, almost merciless, in its
portrayal of the darkness that lies just below the thin veneer of civilization.
It could have been a classic, but it has become a victim of the era in which it
was made. It’s not likely that any major studio today would release a film
showing the deliberate killing of live animals, no matter what the reason. For
one thing PETA would make life miserable for the film makers, and today’s
audiences would most likely condemn it as well. The casting of Debra Paget as
the unnamed “Indian Girl” is another strike against it. The casting was not
Richard Brooks’ fault. Movie studios in 1956 never cast Native Americans in
major roles. Indian characters were usually played by Mexican actors like
Delores Del Rio or Gilbert Roland. Paget
does a great job, but it’s a false note in a film that tries so hard to be
But the biggest problems with “The Last Hunt” is its slow
pace. The film focuses too much on the five main characters bogged down in
their own personal conflicts. It takes forever for McKenzie to finally have his
fill of Charlie’s constant bullying and mean-tempered treatment of the woman
and the half-breed. He’s too mild-mannered and when the final showdown does
happen it’s a long, drawn out affair that lacks suspense.
(The above clip is from the previously released DVD version from the Warner Archive)
That’s not to say “The Last Hunt” isn’t worth watching.
Despite its drawbacks, it’s a well-made movie with an important story to tell.
One highlight worth noting is the beautiful location cinematography by the
amazing Russell Harlan, whose career went back to Hopalong Cassidy films shot in
black and white out at Lone Pine in the 1930s. Harlan’s’ work here is some of
the best he’d ever done, filling the screen with images of the Black Hills and
Badlands of South Dakota in vivid Eastmancolor and CinemaScope. The Warner
Archive has done a very nice job transferring those images to disc in 1080p
high definition with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Daniele Amfitheatrof’s rousing
score was recorded in four-track stereo and the orchestra sounds as if it’s
live. It’s too bad Warner’s didn’t include a separate audio track just for the
Speaking of extras, the disc comes with two short excerpts
from the old MGM Parade TV series. One shows the film makers out on location,
filming and sound-recording the stampeding herd. There’s also a vintage trailer
for the film.
All in all, if you’re up to the gruesome shooting scenes
and can put up with the ponderous pace, “The Last Hunt” is definitely worth a
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John M. Whalen is the author of "Tragon of Ramura". Click here to order from Amazon.