Monday, November 3, 2008


The John Sturges western "Last Train from Gun Hill" is another one of those chamber westerns from the 1950s where the villains corner the hero in an urban setting and both sides have to count down to their inevitable showdown based on a ticking clock. Aside from some early scenes shot outdoors, most of "Last Train from Gun Hill" occurs within the city limits of the frontier western town of Gun Hill. Furthermore, the story pits two long-time friends, a courageous lawman Kirk Douglas against a powerful cattle baron Anthony Quinn. When the story opens neither man has seen the other in years, but both have sons. Russian composer Dimitri Tiomkin provides "Last Train from Gun Hill" with another one of his brilliant, evocative orchestral scores that enlivens the drama.

The stalwart hero, Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas of "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral"), serves as marshal in the peaceful town of Pauley. One day Matt's wife, Catherine Morgan (Ziva Rodann of "King Creole"), and their young son, (Ricky William Kelman), are on the way back from the Indian Reservation where they have just visited her father when two drunken cowpokes, Rick Belden (Earl Holliman of "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral") and Lee Smithers (Brian G. Hutton, future director of "Where Eagles Dare"), frighten them. Catherine whips Rick so violently that it leaves a scar on his face. Enraged, Rick runs them down, and their carriage overturns. Rick knocks aside her boy and rapes her in the woods. During the rape, Matt's son steals Rick's horse and rides back to town to alert his father. Meanwhile, Matt is in town describing a famous gun battle that took place years ago between the infamous Bradley boys and him. At a properly dramatic moment, his son coming thundering into town on the stolen horse crying his eyes out. Matt rides back to where the carriage overturned and finds the partially nude body of his raped wife who lies dead in the woods. When Matt walks back to the horse with his wife in his arms, he notices the elaborate leather saddle and raises one of the flaps. Tiomkin's score singles out this moment with a melodramatic tone when Matt discovers the initials C.B. in the saddle. He recognizes those initials and heads back to town to prepare for his journey to Gun Hill to see his own friend about the stolen horse.

At the Belden ranch, Rick and Lee return and complain to Craig Belden about the loss of Rick's horse. Craig (Anthony Quinn of "The Ride Back") could care less about the loss of the horse, but he demands that Rick find his saddle. Moreover, Craig refuses to settle for any substitute for that saddle. He makes a big deal out of it and this is the point where we see that father and son are not on the same wavelength. Later, we discover that they like to batter women. At one point, Craig's foreman Beero (Brad Dexter of "The Magnificent Seven") makes a joke about the scar on Rick's father. Craig interprets the comment as a slur on the Belden name and forces Rick to fight with Beero. Predictably, Beero knocks out Rick in no time. Craig roars about Rick not having enough pride. Win or lose, whenever anybody disgraces the name of Belden, Craig expects his son to fight back. Afterward, they share a chuckle about the 'she-bears' in Pauley, the peaceful town, where Rick lost the horse and saddle.

Matt takes the train to Gun Hill and rents a buggy to see Craig Belden. He returns the saddle to Craig, and they reminisce about old times. Craig tells Matt that his son lost the horse in Pauley, but by now Craig knows that his son raped and killed Matt's wife. Furthermore, Craig knows that nothing in the world will prevent Matt from taking Rick back in irons to stand trial. Matt returns to Gun Hill where he receives a chilly reception and Craig sends Beero and another cowpoke, Skag (Bing Russell of "The Magnificent Seven") to town to watch over Rick. Matt snoops around, then enters the saloon from the rear by a tree and catches Rick hiding behind some curtains, slugs him and takes his prisoner. The Gun Hill sheriff, Bartlett (Walter Sande of "Bad Day at Black Rock") refuses to let Matt use his jail cell until the train arrives, so Matt holes up with Rick in the local hotel. Meantime, Craig rounds up all his gunhands and they lay siege to the hotel. Craig's old girlfriend (Carolyn Jones of "The Addams Family") has just returned to Gun Hill from a long stay in the hospital. Craig uses her as a go-between, but she goes behind his back and smuggles Matt a shotgun. Neither man plans to back down in this duel of the titans.

When "Last Train to Gun Hill" appeared theatrically in 1959, interracial romances in westerns were nothing new, but this western contained a rape scene that occurred partly on camera, though by the time that Rick had ripped off Catherine's clothing, the camera has retreated to a long shot. "Last Train from Gun Hill" represented a new spate of westerns that dealt with frank subject matter because the western had encountered flak from its television counterparts and film producers were looking from material of a more adult nature. Charles Lang's cinematography is exemplary and Tiomkin's theme music knows where to highlight segments of the plot for maximum impact. John Sturges paces the momentum so that things never get boring. The speech about hanging is superb from a top-notch screenplay by James Poe. Hal Wallis produced this above-average oater for Paramount Pictures.

An excellent book to peruse if you are interested in John Sturges, his life, and his films is Glen Lovell's top-notch biography on Sturges entitled "Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges." Mr. Lovell spent 10 years writing and researching this seminal text about Sturges.

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