The Last Command (1955)

The Last Command 1955One of the three members of the Alamo trinity along with David Crockett and William Travis, Jim Bowie and his famous knife have been a ripe subject for Hollywood feature films. Often enough, those flicks have little to nothing to do with Bowie’s actual exploits, including a handful of B-westerns that look to bank on the famous name. A rare exception and a pretty decent little biography about the last 2 years of Bowie’s life is 1955’s The Last Command.

It’s 1834 as famous knife fighter Jim Bowie (Sterling Hayden) returns to Texas on his way back home to see his wife and children at their home in Mexico. A land owner and Mexican citizen, Bowie discovers the ever-increasing rumblings of revolution, the Texans looking to fight for their rights from a Mexican government seemingly hell-bent on ignoring those rights. Bowie preaches peace, only changing his mind after his wife and family pass away. Now, Bowie can throw himself into the conflict, especially when Stephen F. Austin (Otto Kruger) returns from Mexico City preaching that the only resolution will come from fighting. As Mexican dictator Santa Anna (J. Carrol Naish) leads an army north from Mexico, all roads point to San Antonio and a crumbling old mission turned into a fort, the Alamo.

Anyone familiar with John Wayne’s The Alamo from 1960 will no doubt notice some similarities between that film and this 1955 flick from Republic Studios. The reason? This was originally made with Wayne — still working at Republic — attached as an actor. He wanted to make an Alamo film, but disagreements with the studio drove the two sides apart. The end result was simple; Wayne left Republic, Republic made the film without Wayne, apparently out of spite. There are some similarities, from Davy Crockett’s death to the Alamo defenders raiding the surrounding Mexican army for artillery and many others. The biggest difference though is obvious, a focus on Jim Bowie.

I’ve often criticized Hayden for being one of the more wooden actors to ever grace the screen. Thankfully, he injects some life into his part here as the famous knife fighter. Read about Bowie’s life, and my goodness, this fella was up to no good seemingly as soon as he could walk. This 1950’s portrayal is a little tam, portraying Bowie as an upright citizen, a patriot, and a loyal, brave and capable fighter. Hayden has some fun with the part, bringing the right amount of energy to play Bowie. Like Wayne’s Alamo, the story here features an unnecessary love story, Bowie falling for 18-year-old Consuelo (Anna Maria Alberghetti), in scenes that do nothing but slow down the story. Hayden is up to the task overall though, leading a pretty impressive cast.

I’m an Alamo buff, so I’ve watched just about everything there is from Hollywood about the battle and the Texas Revolution. Director Frank Lloyd tackles the subject head-on, covering about two years (1834-1836) in a 110-minute movie. Things are a little slow-going early on as everything is laid out, but ‘Command’ really hits its stride about the 40-minute mark as the fighting kicks in, eventually leading to the siege and battle of the Alamo. Lloyd’s film gets credit for trying to set up the story, not just rushing to the Alamo. It plays kinda fast and loose with the facts at times — Bowie and Santa Anna are supposedly good friends, the Mexican dictator even calling him ‘Jimmy’ — but it’s a highly entertaining, mostly accurate(ish) story.

Telling a familiar story, we get some familiar faces along the way. Richard Carlson is excellent as Travis, idealistic Alamo commander (a little old but a good part), and Arthur Hunnicutt is a scene-stealer as a homespun, backwoods Davy Crockett. They aren’t flashy parts, but they cut to the core of who the 3 men were (or at least what I hope they were). Ernest Borgnine is also a scene-stealer as Radin, a rival turned friend for Bowie. Other Alamo defenders include young Jeb Lacey (Ben Cooper), Lt. Dickinson (John Russell), and familiar character actors in Jim Davis, Slim Pickens, Russell Simpson, Eduard Franz and Roy Roberts. Virginia Grey appears briefly as Susannah Dickinson. Some fun supporting parts, especially Hunnicutt and Borgnine.

The actual battle for the Alamo takes up about the last 40 minutes of ‘Command.’ The set is somewhat limited — we basically see one corner of the mission along with the wooden palisade — but there’s something oddly cool about the set built near Bracketville, Texas (where Wayne’s film was made). For a movie released in 1955, the final assault on the Alamo is surprisingly vicious and violent. Nothing graphic, but still pretty hardcore stuff for a 1950s audience. Each character gets their moment, their on-screen death with Bowie saved for last. And while not Wild Bunch bloody, many of the deaths leave a lasting impression. This was bloody, horrific hand-to-hand fighting at its worst, close combat on steroids, something the battle sequence definitely shows.

There’s nothing hugely memorable about this 1955 Republic picture, but I like it just the same. Composer Max Steiner’s score is a highlight — give it a sample HERE — and the Jim Bowie theme song (listen HERE) is pretty awful, but in an amazingly bad and memorable way. Lots of good actors, familiar faces and an enjoyable if unspectacular story. One IMDB reviewer points it out accurately. It’s neither a big budget A-movie or a low-budget B-movie, but it’s somewhere in between. Definitely check out the new Blu-Ray released in December 2018. It’s a beautiful print and far ahead of any other version I’d seen.

The Last Command (1955): ***/****

Advertisements

El Dorado (1967)

el_dorado_28john_wayne_movie_poster29With 1959’s Rio Bravo, director Howard Hawks turned in one of his finest films in a career that spanned 6 decades. How good is it? Over 11 years, Hawks remade the film twice, first with 1967’s El Dorado and then 3 years later with 1970’s Rio Lobo. Here we go with the first remake, El Dorado.

A hired gun with a reputation for a fast draw, Cole Thornton (John Wayne) has agreed to sign on with a powerful rancher, Bart Jason (Ed Asner). He doesn’t know exactly what the job entails, ultimately deciding to not take the job when he realizes Jason is trying to drive a fellow rancher out by any means necessary. In the process, Thornton takes a bullet in his back that causes him to lose all feeling in his right arm. Months pass though, Thornton eventually ending up back in the valley. He decides to join the effort against Jason, joining his old friend, JP Harrah (Robert Mitchum), who’s retreated into a bottle after a woman left him. Now, Thornton, Harrah and a motley crew must band together to stop Jason from taking over the valley.

Sound familiar? It should, ‘Dorado’ a loose remake of Hawks’ Rio Bravo, made 8 years earlier. It isn’t spot-on, but it’s pretty dang close, a sheriff and a ragtag band forced to band together to keep their town going against a power-hungry rancher. Sure, there are tweaks here and there, but let’s call it what it is, a remake. The same filming locations — notably Old Tucson — are even used! The analysis is pretty cut and dry. If you liked ‘Bravo,’ you’ll like ‘Dorado.’

Though they were both in The Longest Day’s massive cast, Wayne and Mitchum were never on-screen together (that I remember). So naturally, the pairing of the two Hollywood legends is enough reason to watch any movie. There are flaws here in ‘Dorado,’ but let me tell you, the casting ain’t one of those flaws. Wayne and Mitchum make it look easy from the word ‘go,’ just two pros doing their thing and playing effortlessly off each other. Thornton is the hired gun (a bit of a darker part for Wayne) with Mitchum as the drunken sheriff, good with a gun but down on his luck. Naturally, there’s history between the two men, former rivals turned longtime friends. Just go for the ride with these two. You won’t be disappointed.

According to a Mitchum biographer, Hawks approached him with the idea of casting him opposite Wayne. Mitchum asked about the script/story to which Hawks said ‘Nah, no story. Just characters.’ It’s a dead-on description. Yeah, there are bad guys, things to be dealt with, but that story (I use the word lightly) is sorta kinda not really something that ties one scene to another. It’s 126 minutes long, but that second hour feels much longer, seemingly watching the same scenes over and over again. There isn’t much energy, little momentum, and then it just sorta ends. It’s never bad, just not as good at it could have been. ‘Bravo’ is 14 minutes longer, but it crackles, always on the right path.

So no story? Better be some damn good characters then! A very young James Caan more than holds his own with Wayne and Mitchum, playing Mississippi, a young gambler who’s proficient with a knife…but can’t shoot a gun to save his life. A strong part with some good laughs along the way. Charlene Holt and Michelle Carey are the love interests, two strong women and not your typical damsels in distress. Christopher George is underused as Nelse McLeod, a gunslinger with a code, his scenes with Wayne’s Thornton excellent. It’s just two guys sizing each other up. Also, Arthur Hunnicutt plays Arthur Hunnicutt, um, I mean Bull, an old Indian fighter who’s always talking.

Also look for Paul Fix, Asner, R.G. Armstrong, Jim Davis and Robert Donner in supporting parts. Johnny Crawford also makes a quick appearance as a young rancher’s son. Any Rifleman fans will get a kick out of seeing young Mark McCain grown up a bit!

The first hour is excellent, the second hour just not able to keep up. There are so many plates spinning — a lot of characters — that it all gets muddled. The villains are weak at best, and there’s very little action. Still, the star power — Wayne, Mitchum and Caan especially — makes it worthwhile. Hawks does focus almost entirely on characters over story, and while risky, it pays off. A very good western, but not a great one. The theme song, well, you’ll be singing it for days. Listen HERE.

El Dorado (1967) ***/****