The films of Richard Brooks are never to be taken lightly. A hard-edged director who could never be accused of subtlety, Brooks’ films demand over-the-top performances, disillusionment, cruel irony and bursts of violence. His 1956 MGM Western The Last Hunt, just released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive Collection, has all those qualities. There’s no mistaking this bleak Western for anything other than a Richard Brooks movie.
Based on the novel by Milton Lott, The Last Hunt is like so many Westerns about the old world clashing with the new, and a tired man on the edge of retirement clashing with another man desperate for one last grasp at glory. Here, the man hoping to retire into the sunset is Sandy McKenzie (Stewart Granger), who was once hailed as the greatest buffalo hunter in the country. The man desperate for action is trigger-happy Charles Gilson (Robert Taylor).
Gilson convinces Sandy to go on one last buffalo hunt for some quick cash. However, Gilson’s inability to trust anyone and his sick obsession with hating Native Americans make it impossible for this to be a long-term success. Gilson also becomes obsessed with the nameless Native American girl (Debra Paget) and believes Sandy wants her too, driving another wedge between the two.
Granger and Taylor certainly give good performances, although Taylor is more-or-less doing his best Gary Cooper impression here. The real stars of the movie are the three main supporting players. Lloyd Nolan gives a wonderful performance as Woodfoot, the one-legged wise buffalo skinner Sandy insists on taking. And even though it is a little hard to take Russ Tamblyn as a half-breed named Jimmy, he makes the best of a rare opportunity to play a serious role early in his career.
Debra Paget is an unsung hero in this movie. Best known today for her role in The Ten Commandments (also released in 1956!), Paget’s near-silent performance will come as a surprise to anyone who has only seen her in the Cecil B. DeMille epic. It is unfortunate that a Native American actress does not have the role, but Paget gives the character more depth than usually seen in a role like this. She practically has to give two different performances, depending on the leading man she is in a scene with.
One particular aspect of The Last Hunt might make it more difficult for modern viewers is its scenes of real buffalo being killed. Before the movie starts, a text prologue tells us that MGM actually filmed government marksmen shooting buffalo during a herd “thinning” at Custer State Park in South Dakota. Although the buffalo population has been on the rise thanks to regulations, it does not make watching animals killed any easier.
The Last Hunt was one of only three Westerns Brooks ever made. While he was probably just assigned to the project, you can see why he embraced the subject, with two flawed men at the forefront who are made to look foolish by their much wiser supporting characters. Brooks also brought out the biggest messages of the story – disrespecting other cultures is not a good idea, you should probably ask questions before pulling the trigger and killing anything can corrupt the soul.
This is another one of Warner Archive’s curious Blu-ray upgrades. We still don’t have Brooks’ career-making Blackboard Jungle on Blu-ray or Sweet Bird of Youth, but we have his obscure Western The Last Hunt in 1080p! However, I can see what attracted them to this title. It is a beautifully photographed Cinemascope movie, with cinematography by Russell Harlan, who went on to shoot Rio Bravo, To Kill A Mockingbird and Witness for the Prosecution.
Warner Archive includes a handful of promotional extras:
- MGM Parade: Russ Tamblyn – This brief MGM Parade interview with Tamblyn features the actor talking about his role in the film and introducing a scene.
- MGM Parade: Richard Brooks & Dore Schary – In this seven-minute excerpt, Brooks and MGM chief Dore Schary, who personally produced The Last Hunt, talk about the difficulty of filming on location and working with real buffalo. It is interesting to see just to watch Brooks squirm.
The Last Hunt is yet another off-beat choice for a Blu-ray release from Warner Archive, but it is just more evidence that their team is dedicated to introducing these films to new audiences. This is a Western with great performances and shows the impact killing can have on a person.