Tuesday, July 11, 2017

#2,382. Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) - The Films of Kirk Douglas

Directed By: John Sturges

Starring: Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, Carolyn Jones

Tagline: "The mightiest double-barreled excitement to blaze across the screen !"

Trivia: Hal B. Wallis bought Les Crutchfield 's story in March 1954 and planned it as a possible starring vehicle for Charlton Heston or Burt Lancaster

Last Train From Gun Hill, a 1959 western directed by John Sturges, gets off to a brutal start; a Native American woman (Ziva Rodann) and a young boy, presumably her son (Lars Henderson), are enjoying a leisurely ride in a horse-drawn wagon when they pass a couple of cowboys resting by the side of the road. 

Looking to have some fun with the pretty squaw, the two cowboys hop on their horses and, after catching up to the wagon, try to convince the woman to slow down. Instead, she hits one of them with her riding whip, leaving a gash on the man’s cheek.

The wagon speeds up, only to capsize when it tries to make a sharp turn. The injured man, none too pleased about the wound he just received, dismounts his horse and corners the squaw, who tells her son to run away as fast as he can. The cowboy rips her top off, and she lets out a scream. Frightened, the woman’s son jumps on one of the assailant’s horses and rides for help, which, unfortunately, won’t arrive in time to save his mother.

But this was no ordinary woman. She was the wife of Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas), a federal marshal stationed in nearby Pawley. And her attacker was no everyday cowboy. His name is Rick Belden (Earl Holliman), the only son of cattle baron Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn), a man so powerful that he practically owns the town of Gun Hill. To complicate matters, Matt Morgan and Craig Belden are the best of friends, former partners who spent many years riding together before going their separate ways.

To bring his wife’s killers to justice, Morgan hops the next train to Gun Hill, and during the trip meets former saloon girl Linda (Carolyn Jones), who, it turns out, is also close to Craig Belden (though, as we will soon discover, she’s no fan of his son Rick).

Once in Gun Hill, Morgan visits the Belden Ranch, and tells his old pal that he’s going to arrest both Rick and the cowpoke who accompanied him to Pawley, a ranch hand named Lee Smithers (played by Brian G. Hutton) who is himself employed by Craig Belden. Morgan intends to bring the two back to Pawley to stand trial for rape and murder. 

Despite their friendship, Craig Belden warns Morgan not to take his son away, promising that, if he does, all of Gun Hill will stand against him.

With 6 hours to go before the train back to Pawley arrives, it looks as if there’s going to be quite a showdown on the streets of Gun Hill, and seeing as the sheriff (Walter Sande) is in Craig Belden’s pocket, Matt Morgan will have to fight this particular battle alone.

The theme of a hero (or heroes) facing insurmountable odds is one that director John Sturges has returned to time and again throughout his career, whether it be in a western (Bad Day at Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven), a war film (The Great Escape), or a drama (The Old Man and the Sea). In Last Train from Gun Hill, Matt Morgan finds himself taking on not just his friend and the men he employs, but everyone in Gun Hill. Once the reason for his coming to town is made known, Morgan can’t walk down the street without drawing stares from every front porch and window, and the sheriff of Gun Hill refuses to sign his warrants or provide Morgan with deputies to help him serve them. “Isn’t there anyone in this town not afraid of Craig Belden?” Morgan asks the local bartender (Val Avery). “Sure”, the bartender replies. “The graveyard’s full of them”. Morgan does eventually take Rick Belden into custody, resulting in a final act that is as intense as they come.

Yet what makes the showdown in Last Train from Gun Hill so intriguing is that its two major combatants are old chums, and, despite being on opposite sides of this fight, neither man really wants to hurt the other. Though desperate to save his son, Craig Belden gives Morgan several chances to leave town quietly, a courtesy he doesn’t extend to many people (as witnessed earlier when he handed Lee Smithers his walking papers). 

As for Morgan, the anger he feels towards Rick Belden is tempered - at least in part - by the respect he has for Craig. Douglas and Quinn are superb in their respective roles, and by way of their performances we can tell that their characters are damn near heartbroken to be facing off against one another.

But with so much on the line, neither is going to back down, and it’s because of this that Last Train from Gun Hill is as much a tragedy as it is a western.

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