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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Last Command (Blu-ray)
The Last Command (Blu-ray)
Kl Studio Classics // Unrated // December 11, 2018 // Region A
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted January 9, 2019 | E-mail the Author
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The circumstances leading up to the production of The Last Command (1955), Republic Pictures' big-scale movie about the Battle of the Alamo, are more interesting than the movie itself. Beginning around 1948, John Wayne began hoping to star, produce and direct a movie about the Alamo, to be made at Republic, Wayne's home studio since the mid-1930s.

By this point Wayne was already a huge star, and had outgrown his association with Republic, a B-picture company best known for their singing cowboys (Gene Autry and, later, Roy Rogers) and slickly-made serials. And John Wayne, who made mostly forgettable movies for Republic and memorable ones elsewhere, whenever the studio loaned out his services. John Ford's Fort Apache and especially Howard Hawks's Red River, released by RKO and United Artists, respectively, had solidified Wayne's A-list status.

Wayne, however, was a loyal to a fault. He stayed at Republic, hoping they'd up their game by producing mentor John Ford's long-cherished film of The Quiet Man (1952). Republic head Herbert Yates begrudgingly agreed to produce it provided Ford first make another Western, which became Rio Grande (1950), but even after that proved successful, Yates whined his way through the production and postproduction of The Quiet Man, certain it would flop. Instead, it proved a smash and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning two.

Nevertheless, Yates unwisely pitted Wayne's loyalty to Republic against his loyalty to John Ford, Wayne's mentor since the late ‘20s. Yates cheated Ford out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in Quiet Man profits, angering Wayne. Further, when Wayne's Alamo movie became next in the pipeline, again Yates complained about the budget. Wayne wanted to shoot it in Panama of all places, figuring there he'd get more bang for his American bucks. He envisioned an epic looking even bigger than his proposed $3 million budget. But Yates had never spent $3 million on any film. The two men got into a shouting match, Wayne walked off the Republic lot and never spoke to Yates again.

Wayne eventually did The Alamo (1960) for United Artists and, good or bad, made exactly the epic he long dreamed of making, ultimately a $12 million, three-hour-plus epic filmed in Todd-AO (70mm). It made money, but not for Wayne, who had to sell his financial stake in the production before it was finished.

As for Yates, he wasn't about to let all those development and research costs go to waste, so he, too made his Alamo movie, The Last Command, the Republic way. Though a far cry from the sweeping historical epic Wayne had imagined, by Republic's standards The Last Command was a big production. It's not a very good movie, held together to the extent that it is by Sterling Hayden's leading performance as Jim Bowie, but it's not bad and in some respects is better than Wayne's Alamo.

Surprisingly, no one in The Last Command even goes near the Alamo until the last third or so of the picture, with most of the story unexpectedly concerned with the political tensions between American settlers with land grants seeing their rights stripped away, and the ambitions of General Santa Ana (J. Carrol Naish). Legendary frontiersman Jim Bowie (Hayden) finds himself caught in the middle, having once fought under Santa Ana and who regards himself as a citizen of Mexico, and yet who is sympathetic to the rights-stripped American colonists, led by South Carolinian William Travis (Richard Carlson). The independence-minded settlers are bemused by Bowie's reluctance to join the fight, but he insists that "killing solves nothing."

However, the death of Bowie's family and Santa Ana's growing despotism forces the pioneer to reevaluate his position. As Santa Ana's troops converge on San Antonio, Travis relies on promises and rumors that Sam Houston will send thousands of soldiers to defend them or, at the very least, Tennessean Davy Crocket (Arthur Hunnicutt) will arrive with 1,000 men of his own. But when Crockett turns up with just 29 men, and with Houston's troops are a no-show, the population fortifies the Alamo Mission for the imminent disaster.

Yates's film, directed with a sure hand by veteran Frank Lloyd, is neither fish nor fowl, too cheap to impress with its compromised scale yet clearly a bigger production than most Republic product. Wayne's movie made no compromises: his Alamo is a meticulous recreature, full-scale, where in The Last Command Republic resorts to soundstage sets and pretty terrible matte paintings to add scale.

Besides Lloyd, Yates didn't skimp in other areas, hiring Max Steiner to write the film's score and Gordon MacRae to sing the title song, "Jim Bowie." The Last Command is better cast: Wayne was too old and paunchy a Davy Crockett where longtime character actor Arthur Hunnicutt, who specialized in folksy, backwoods role, was perfect, if a little underutilized. Richard Widmark's Jim Bowie was, as Widmark's characters often were, too strident, where Sterling Hayden is circumspect and multifaceted. Richard Carlson was too old to be playing Travis, but his earnest blandness somehow plays better than English actor Laurence Harvey's more flamboyant portrayal. Italian-born opera singer Anna Maria Alberghetti is fine as Bowie's Mexican love interest, projecting appropriate wide-eyed innocence.

In smaller parts, Ben Cooper, Jim Davis, Slim Pickens and others add authenticity on horseback and fighting the Mexican Army. Ernest Borgnine, in his last small part following his Oscar win with Marty (made earlier but not yet in release) has several good scenes with Hayden.

Video & Audio

Filmed in three-color Trucolor, and presented in 1.66:1 widescreen, The Last Command generally looks good (reportedly a new master from a 4K scan of the original negative) and the DTS-HD mono audio is acceptable. Region "A" encoded.

Extra Features

The lone supplement is a good one, an audio commentary by Frank Thompson, the author of Alamo Movies. I didn't listen to the whole thing, but he sorts through the various films about the Alamo, what's known about the battle and its aftermath (less than one would think), and the lives of the historical characters.

Parting Thoughts

Not really much better than a decent time-killer, but of moderate interest to Western genre fans, The Last Command is Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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