I honestly thought that I’d seen all of Anthony Mann’s great Westerns from the 1950s: Winchester ‘73, The Naked Spur, Bend of the River and The Man from Laramie. Nevertheless, a few months ago I stumbled across yet another terrific Western he directed, The Last Frontier.
The reasons I believe that this isn’t a well-remembered Mann film are: 1. It doesn’t star James Stewart, like the others do. 2. It covers so much ground that you have no idea what the film was actually about when it’s over.
I’ll stick my neck out and say the story’s theme, though somewhat unfocused, is that the uniform doesn’t make the man; the man makes the uniform.
Robert Preston gives an impressively restrained performance as Col. Marston, the “Butcher of Shiloh,” who lost 1,500 men in a single encounter out of sheer overzealousness. He likes to attack, no matter what the odds, and he doesn’t like anybody who doesn’t agree with him. Marston takes over a fort deep in Indian Country during the Civil War and decides, even though he has no orders and only a handful of untrained recruits, that he’s going to wipe out the entire Indian Nation.
Stepping into the middle of this situation is backwoodsman Jed Cooper (Victor Mature), who immediately sees that Marston’s plan will be suicide for everybody. He promptly falls for Marston’s wife (a young, blonde Anne Bancroft) and outrageously begins putting the moves on her. Mature, himself not terribly well-remembered (though great as Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine), gives a big, boisterous, incredibly amusing performance.
The Last Frontier offers a visually-striking West in Cinemascope; a fascinating time period; a top-notch cast, including James Whitmore and Guy Madison; and a lot of sharp, interesting writing covering a gamut of topics from friendship, loyalty, love, religion and the meaning of duty to your country and your military uniform. The combination of all these elements makes for an exceptionally fun, fast-paced and engrossing movie.
Josh Becker is the internationally-known director of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules, has directed seven feature films and has been a proud member of the Director’s Guild of America for 17 years. His latest book is Going Hollywood by Point Blank.