Starring: Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, Carolyn Jones
Director: John Sturges
Mood: If you think the legal system is severely broken and want to watch Kirk Douglas bring two privileged, racist young white dudes to justice for rape and murder.
It felt strange and sad watching a Western yesterday.
I just got back from a week up at the family ranch, where we mourned the sudden passing of my future father-in-law in a ranching accident. That brilliant man revived my love of Westerns, introduced me to The Sacketts, and loaned me my first Louis L’Amour novel.
Every single time we visited him, we watched Westerns together. He’s the one who first showed me Sergio Leone, Keith Carradine, and Silverado. And when I discovered new movies between visits, I’d be on the phone telling him about them and bringing them up to share on the next trip.
So yeah, it felt like there was no f*cking point to Westerns without him. But my love of the genre is now one of the few ways I can feel connected to him. He wanted me to chase all of my big dreams (and help me catch them), and Western movie nights were ALWAYS a part of the dream. So yesterday I finally sat down in front of my collection, ready to get back in the saddle.
I picked Last Train from Gun Hill because I wanted a sure bet. Kirk Douglas has never failed me as a Western lead, and I couldn’t resist the temptation of the OG Morticia Addams (Carolyn Jones) in a Western. Let me tell you – this was one bet that paid off BIG TIME. The story is still extremely relevant in these messed up times.
Last Train from Gun Hill is the third John Sturges film I’ve watched. First was 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (also starring Kirk Douglas and pretty decent), followed by the 1967 James Garner flop Hour of the Gun. I kept reading that Sturges was this brilliant Western director. Well, now I’ve finally seen it.
The story is fairly simple. Marshal Matt Morgan (Douglas) learns that while his wife and young son were visiting her parents on the nearby Cherokee reservation, two young white guys chased them down and raped and murdered his wife. That all happens in the first scene, shockingly fast for a ‘50s Western.
His son had escaped by stealing one of their horses, and the marshal recognizes the initials on the saddle as an old friend’s. That man, Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn), is now a super rich cattle baron in Gun Hill. So Marshal Morgan rides out to take care of business.
The problem is that everyone in town is intimidated by Belden, so no one will help. Some young assholes go so far as to say that in their town any man who murdered a ‘squaw’ would be given a bounty. Belden himself is stoked to see his old pal, until he hears the story and realizes it was his own son who did the deed. Then Belden does everything he can to protect his piece of garbage boy, while Morgan methodically pursues the goal of taking two prisoners with him on the last train at 9pm.
Douglas and Quinn are both SO F*CKING GOOD. Their first scene together is everything you could want – tense dialogue, great plot building, powerful acting. Apparently much of the best dialogue was written by (uncredited) blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten.
- Fun Fact: Kirk Douglas was critical in breaking the Hollywood blacklist, by hiring Trumbo to write the script for Spartacus and then giving him full credit.
Douglas radiates such calm and precision, he’s absolutely perfect as Marshal Morgan. You get the full impact of his talent in this amazing monologue to the young Rick Belden (Earl Holliman) about exactly how he’s going to punish him. And then he’s so badass that he can outshoot the bad guys while walking down a flight of stairs with an unconscious man over his shoulder!
The biggest surprise is Carolyn Jones as Linda. As a kid I wanted to grow up to be Morticia, so obviously I thought she was great – but there wasn’t a ton of range in that role. In Last Train from Gun Hill she is an absolute powerhouse.
Seriously. Linda is officially on my list of great female Western characters. She’s smart, strong, fearless-yet-vulnerable. She can fix a man with such a don’t-f*ck-with-me look that he wilts in his boots. And best of all, she’s not just the love interest.
Anthony Quinn is also pretty damn fantastic as Craig Belden. He has such an expressive face that it’s a totally different take on the classic rich white dude in control. He’s not predominantly cold and sinister, like Gene Hackman (The Quick and the Dead) or Leo Di Caprio (Django Unchained), or slimy like Bruce Cabot (The War Wagon). He shows you hurt and desperation, with a side of twisted, bullying father-son relations.
Literally my only ‘complaints’ about Last Train from Gun Hill were that sometimes the chipper ‘50s score didn’t match the serious action, and that when the fire broke out not a single person in that tightly packed town full of wooden structures started to panic or get water.
This movie is eerily relevant, because it’s so similar to a lot of news from the last few years. I’d like to think that no parent would actually try so hard to shield their murdering, rapist kid from standing fair trial and doing time… but we all know that ain’t the case.
I’m glad I watched it. It did fill my heart with intense sadness when I realized, early on in the movie, that Jaye would have absolutely loved it. Maybe he was watching it with me, who knows.