Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Delmer Daves made some of the most entertaining 50s westerns starting with the trend-setting Broken Arrow, a sentimental pro-Indian piece that functions almost identically to the old RKO film Bird of Paradise -- which he remade the very next year. Both starred Debra Paget, but that's another (sigh) story. After a long writer's break-in period at Warners, Daves played the field and came up with a string of interesting, character-driven western hits. 3:10 to Yuma is considered a classic, while the interesting Drum Beat, Jubal and Cowboy still play well. The Badlanders is a pale re-telling of The Asphalt Jungle in western guise. The almost forgotten The Hanging Tree, rumored for later this year, is a transcendent experience and Savant's favorite of the bunch.
The Last Wagon is about in the middle of this group. The acting, direction and particularly the scenery are excellent, even if the script steers a conventional course.
Brutal sheriff Bull Harper (George Mathews) captures the notorious renegade murderer Comanche Todd (Richard Widmark) and joins a wagon train of peaceful settlers as they cut through Apache country. The settlers are wiped out, all except for Todd and six of the children. Friendly Billy (Tommy Rettig) likes Todd, as does his older sister Jenny (Felicia Farr), who has a prospective husband waiting in Tucson. Ridge (Nick Adams) is suspicious because Todd has been living as a Comanche for years. Beautiful Valinda Normand (Sephanie Griffin) hates Todd's heritage because she's already furious about the fact that her half-sister Jolie (Susan Kohner) is of mixed race. Todd has to get the kids to trust him, if he expects to save any of them from the Apaches.
I rarely hear conservatives complaining about Liberal messages in 50s westerns, probably because the themes were always so watered-down. The Last Wagon is a definite Civil Rights western, but its argument really doesn't have teeth. The settlers hate Indians but we don't confuse the wild man Comanche Todd with the enemy -- he's a very blonde Anglo. And it's fairly laughable when the rabid Stephanie Griffin lashes out at Susan Kohner for being a "dirty Indian", as Kohner is more civilized than any of them. Her skin is not pale and she has black hair, and that's about it.
The Last Wagon is especially reticent with its violence because children are involved. There's nothing very disturbing when the kids come upon their families all slaughtered by the Apache -- but experience no gore, no depictions of rape or mutilation. Ray Stricklyn's little sister is a neat little rag-doll corpse whereas the female victims of The Searchers are much more fearfully represented by details like a bloody torn dress. What we really remember of all these young people is how eager they are to sneak off down the hill to go swimming! Kids in westerns tend to have few opportunities for fun.
Richard Widmark is very effective as the kids' teacher in wilderness survival tactics; the movie starts as he knocks off several members of a posse trying to capture him. He's chained to a wagon wheel and tortured by the sheriff, and then miraculously survives when the wagon is rolled over a cliff ... there's not a scratch on him. Todd is rather symbolically hoisted him out of the depths; the movie assumes that by saving the kids, he'll earn his right to rejoin white society. The sight of Widmark being hauled up, fixed to the wheel, is the film's most enduring image.
The best material is when Comanche Todd lays the facts before the kids: It's either do as he says or get left behind to become dog food for the Apaches. They assemble a functional wagon from the various burned out wrecks (pretty clever) and sneak off through the "Canyon of Death," a locale that's not half as scary as Todd says it is. Filmed in beautiful CinemaScope in Sedona, Arizona, it's more like the "Canyon of Breathtaking Scenery."
Indeed, The Last Wagon is so pleasing to look at that the film's conflict takes a back seat. Comanche Todd's survival tips are lot of fun but the real action amounts to fighting an Apache in hand-to-hand combat. Some Yankee troopers (James Drury, Ken Clark) come along and scare off a horde of Apaches with an exploding wagon. The Indian threat never seems to materialize.
The story instead resolves its Civil Rights issues in ways suited for an After School Special. All the kids come over to Todd's side, even the spiteful Valinda after she's bitten by a snake and realizes that everyone is sacrificing to help her. Little Billy practically hangs a "My New Dad" sign on Todd while Felicia Farr sets her sights on Todd on the night before an expected massacre: "This may be our last night together, so ..." Widmark gives her no argument, and neither do we.
The final courtroom wind-up is a modern P.C. whitewashing for hero Todd. Yes, he's an Indian and murderer, but he saved six lives. Nobody mentions the three or four deputies he slaughtered on the trail. Valinda testifies that he taught her not to hate and Jolie says she's learned to be proud of her Indian heritage. We just hope that when Todd returns to society with his new family, he doesn't start throwing battle-axes every time an argument comes up.
All the acting is fine and that's what counts. Nick Adams probably resented not playing a hero but instead a jerk kid who wastes bullets; he still has nothing good to say about Todd at the end. Stephanie Griffin is really beautiful but didn't have much of a run in films. Ray Stricklyn had a busy 50-year career, while Tommy Rettig was already an established star on TV's Lassie and in the cult picture The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Susan Kohner had a short but illustrious career topped with her performance in Imitation of Life; she was the daughter of Lupita Tovar, the beautiful Eva of the Spanish-Language version of the original 1931 Drácula. Felicia Farr would star in two more of Daves' western outings.
George Mathews is particularly good as the nasty Sheriff and everybody's favorite creep Timothy Carey has a good dying scene as one of Todd's unlucky victims. If you were in doubt that Hollywood is a small town, producer William B. Hawks is the brother of director Howard and related to both Mary Astor and Carole Lombard.
Fox's DVD of The Last Wagon looks great, with a fine enhanced transfer that proves that 99% of the story was filmed on location. The flip side has a compromised full-screen Pan-Scan version. Lionel Newman's rousing score is a plus. The show comes with a trailer and several galleries of stills and ad artwork.
Although originally released in 4 Track Stereo, the disc has a choice of 2-channel tracks in English, French and Spanish.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last Wagon rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Still and art galleries, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 4, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson