Robert Taylor began his career at MGM as a handsome young lead with an eager smile in the mid 30s. Somewhere along the time line, during the war years, as he lost his youthful looks, he came to appear stern and not particularly sympathetic. At the same time his acting because routinized, automatic, giving a performance for him became like driving a car is for us. You don't put any thought into it. This didn't keep his studio from casting him in semi-historical costume movies. Whether or not he could act, at least he didn't get in the way of the scenery. Nor did he appear to seek out more dramatic roles that might be more in keeping with his appearance and demeanor. He and MGM were satisfied enough.
Then, here, in 1956, during his mature period, comes this movie, "The Last Hunt," in which Taylor plays probably his most complex character role and gives it everything he's got, mixing meanness and pathos. I give it a bonus point for that alone. It's almost amusing to see the man criticized for overacting. Think about it. Robert TAYLOR? OverACTING? He usually has all the verve of a mechanical man in a circus side show. To accuse him of overacting is like accusing a clam of having moved.
It's a Western about professional buffalo hunters in 1883. The big herds are thinning out. Taylor is still bent on shooting as many buffalo as he can, while his partner, Stewart Granger, has become a reluctant companion. The killing that the two friends have seen in the Civil War has changed them, but in different ways. It's sickened Granger, while Taylor has found that he rather likes it.
On the eponymous final hunt, they pick up a young Indian boy (Russ Tamblyn) and an experienced old buffalo skinner (Lloyd Nolan). A skirmish with some Indians, whom Taylor happily shoots, gets Taylor a beautiful Indian woman to keep him warm at night (Debra Paget).
The movie is sensitive to hunters pretty much having wiped out the buffalo. (It's a little like A. B. Guthrie's novel, "The Big Sky.") And it shows respect for the Sioux and their religion. But except for one or two sentences, it's not preachy, so it would be a mistake to code this as some tender-minded revisionist tract. For what it's worth, the high plains tribes I've lived with still revere the buffalo. They used every single part of every animal they were able to kill. As one Blackfeet man put it, "they were a supermarket." At any rate, Taylor's performance is the key to the movie, and it's quite good. His character follows a trajectory similar to that of Fred C. Dobbs in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", although Taylor is no Bogart, nor does this script have nearly the same quality. But Taylor is friendly enough at the beginning. Oh, a little insensitive to others, but cheerfully optimistic, and loyal to his pal Granger. But then he becomes mercurial. By the end, he's a madman, mistaking the rumble of distant thunder for a hundred thousand buffalo. That final shot of Taylor, wrapped in a frozen buffalo hide, his face a grotesque mask coated with ice, is memorable.
The shooting, alas, is often studio bound. Speech made around the camp fire seems to echo slightly. It's cold but no one's breath steams. It's good to see the manly Stewart Granger as something other than the alpha male. He's not as fast with a gun as Taylor. Nobody is. Granger is given one good scene, as a sad, truculent drunk in a cat house, and he pulls it off well. The fist fight isn't played for laughs. Constance Ford is the whore who administers some superficial comfort to the drunken Granger but he shrugs her off and leaves. Angry, she shouts after him, "What do you think, I have a heart of gold?" (Nice touch.)
Nice job, but sad too. Taylor, and people with his tragic flaws, have left us all a little worse off than we might have been.
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