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The wife of marshal Matt Morgan is raped and murdered. The killers leave behind a distinctive saddle, that Morgan recognises as belonging to his old friend Craig Belden, now cattle baron in the town of Gun Hill. Belden is sympathetic, until it transpires that one of the murderers is his own son Rick, whom he refuses to hand over. Morgan is determined to capture Rick and take him away by the 9.00 train; but he is trapped in the town alone, with Belden and all his men now looking to kill him. Written by
David Levene <D.S.Levene@durham.ac.uk>
In Last Train From Gunhill, there is no possibility of compromise between the characters, no easy resolution:
Craig Beldon (Anthony Quinn): `This is my son you're talking about.'
Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas): `No, Craig. It's my wife we're talking about.'
Thankfully, the filmmakers did not choose to cheat the audience and followed through to the end.
This is an excellent and long underrated film that stands next to 3:10 to Yuma (which this film is very similar to, even sharing plots) and Shane as the best westerns of the 1950s. It is the darkest of all the physiological westerns of the time, and the startling opening to the film leaves these characters in this situation with no way out, no escape. There can be no happy ending to this film. Also, none of the other films of this type, the `noir' or `siege' westerns, included so many of the difficult realities of racism, class and political power, and domestic violence and how these realities complicate friendship, love, and society.
The characters of Morgan and Beldon are studies in contrast. Both rode together years before on the wrong side of the law, Beldon saving Morgan's life at one point. However, in their years apart they had developed very differently. Morgan has become a marshal in a small town, Pauly, whose wild past he helped to end. In his first scene he describes a gunfight that took place there eight years before to a group of boys. All the boys were born after the gunfight, after the town had settled down and become `civilized.' Morgan travels using the train or a buckboard, his outfit resembles a business suit and he even wears a (bola) tie. When his wife, a Cherokee woman, is raped and murdered, he swears to kill the culprits but here enters one of the complications in this film, one of the many that make it so interesting. Morgan is not simply a typical, heroic figure defending justice and order (like Cooper in High Noon), though he does represent these ideals. His use of the law is not simply an altruistic faith it's correctness but, in this case, is his chosen instrument of vengeance. He is going to Gunhill to capture the men responsible for his wife's death, men he will bring back to Pauly and, using the courts, the jury, and the scaffold, will kill them. In the movie's most chilling scene, Morgan describes to one of the handcuffed killers what it will be like when he is hung, enjoying the impact of his words on the man. While he gloats the viewer remembers that he is a good man, a father, marshall, a man you might know and would respect.
Beldon is a rancher who has `sewed up this entire country' and owns the town, `even the town council' and the sheriff. His values are masculine, he is always surrounded by men his son and his ranch hands and his wife is long dead. He thoroughly dominates his surroundings, his town. He can be incredibly generous to his few friends, incredibly demanding of his son, his lover, and his town. In Gunhill, he is the law, while Morgan only represents it.
Linda, Beldon's lover, returns to Gunhill on the same train that brings Morgan to town. She is returning from a hospital after Beldon had beat her:
Linda: `When he tells you dirty, lying stories about me, why do you believe him? Why don't you for once believe me?'
Beldon: `Because he's my son.'
She is only person in the town that will help Morgan, though her reasons are complex: sympathy, revenge against the son, an attempt to hurt the man she loves, the man that hurts her, that chooses to believe the lies of his son because they are his son's lies. Also, she is the only person in the town that will allow herself to feel the horror of the rape, murder, and siege. I find the attitudes and actions of the townspeople in this film more believable than that of those in High Noon. Here the town is unfeeling and hard, frightened about what would happen if they ever allowed themselves to empathize with the weak, rebel against Beldon. They mock Morgan with racist statements that denigrate his wife because it is easier for them to believe that she was "only an Indian", that her death really didn't matter, that her suffering was irrelevant.
The reason the film succeeds, in the end, is that it makes all of these flawed characters sympathetic and understandable. If they could avoid the conflict, they would. Unfortunately, the situation will not allow it.
The other characters are well drawn too, including the sheriff who insists on `taking the long view'; the viscous son Rick who the viewer cannot help but feel some sympathy for because he is so dominated by the father, swept along in his wake; and the reckless ranchhand Lee, who is loyal to the son and not the father.
The acting is great all around, particularly from Carolyn Jones, Quinn, and Douglas, the pairing of which was excellent. Both performances are intense and explosive, as is the film. Poe's script is excellent and Tiomkin provides a good score.
There have only been a few westerns since 1959 that have matched the complexity and substance of Last Train: Once Upon A Time In The West, The Great Silence, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Unforgiven. All of these films exploit the genre's tragic possibilities to the fullest and all are unforgettable. When I think of these films the eyes of Trintignant in the final scene of The Great Silence come to mind, or the way, in this film, that Douglas yells the name of his wife or Quinn, at the train station, yells that of his son. It is amazing that in the most popular and industrial of art forms, in the most basic of all genres, could be created films of such beauty and power.
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