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 This was originally made with Wayne — still working at Republic — attached as an actor.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

Four Guns to the Border (1954)

fourgunsposWhen a B-movie is bad, it can be really bad as its smallish budget and production value takes a toll. When it’s good though? You feel like you’ve stumbled into a hidden gem. That’s the case with 1954’s Four Guns to the Border, a snappy, fun little western based off a Louis L’Amour novel.

After a botched robbery results in nothing more than an empty safe that was supposed to be packed to the seams, a bandit named Cully (Rory Calhoun) and his gang ride out into the desert to plan their next move. Cully has an idea, but it is a desperate one. He’ll ride into the town of Cholla, a town he used to live in before he was run out of town by his friend-turned-marshal, Jim Flannery (Charles Drake). While he causes a distraction, his men will take advantage and rob the bank. That’s the plan at least. Cully and his gang come across an aging gunslinger (Walter Brennan) and his beautiful young daughter, Lolly (Colleen Miller), who has eyes for Cully. With an Apache war party in the area, everything is up for grabs.

There are hundreds and thousands of westerns out there in Movie Land just waiting to be found. Long story short? I’ll give any western a try. Flicks like this from actor-turned-director Richard Carlson are a welcome find. It’s the perfect example of a quality B-western. Small scale and small budget with a manageable cast, a straightforward story, some lovey-dovey for the ladies, and enough action to keep things moving. At just 83 minutes, ‘Guns’ drifts a little bit in the third act, but it’s fun from beginning to end. It never overstays its welcome and is a western I can highly recommend. Definitely track this one down.

I grew up reading Louis L’Amour westerns, and I still circle back every so often and give one a read. They’re like comfort food; familiar, always good and you always come back for more. There’s a formula too, one which ‘Guns’ follows along with. L’Amour’s anti-heroes — bandits, cowboys, drifters — were never that bad. When push comes to shove, they almost always made the right decisions — their bad guy-ness be damned. Throw in a gang of an old guy, a young firebrand and typically a minority, a pretty girl who has no business being on her own, some nameless, easily dispatched villains, and you’ve got a good mix!

Calhoun is an underrated gem in a variety of tough guy genres, especially the western. He was never a huge star, but he was always a welcome presence when I see his name pop up in a cast. I like his Cully, a tough, quiet, no-nonsense outlaw trying to outrun his past (and eventually get even). His gang is pure L’Amour, including Dutch (John McIntire), the old-timer looking for some $ to start a ranch, Bronco (George Nader), the young, fun-loving fast draw, and Yaqui (Jay Silverheels), the Indian tracker. These aren’t the dark, blood-lust bandits of so many later westerns. This is a likable bunch who I found myself rooting for. And let’s be honest…it’s cool to see Lone Ranger sidekick Tonto in a quasi-bad guy part!

Now for the interesting almost pornographic portion of our review! I’d never seen the very lovely Colleen Miller before in a movie, but….well, let’s say this is a pretty memorable turn. She’s a pretty decent actress, miles ahead of many pretty faces cast in B-movies! Carlson and the script call for some…I’ll say “Interesting” situations. Knocked out with a hit to the head, she gets a bucket of water poured on her, but Brennan misses her head and gets her shirt (a lot). She also flashes some leg getting into a dress, has a candy cane while the men ogle her, and runs out to the barn in a rainstorm while wearing a white nightgown. Not a complaint — she’s gorgeous — but the studio was clearly appealing to its male audience.

Also look for Nina Foch as Flannery’s wife, a woman who clearly has some history with Cully (uh-oh, unspoken love triangle!), and Nestor Paiva as Greasy, the owner of a saloon/store in the desert with some ties to our almost heroic outlaws.

I give ‘Guns’ credit. It’s pretty straightforward stuff, but it is also pretty unique. There’s some good twists and turns along the way in a story that doesn’t seem too familiar. I especially liked the twist about an hour into the movie as the gang makes a heroic decision. The ending itself could have been a whopper of a downer if Carlson wanted…but it’s 1954 America, not 1968 Italy in a spaghetti western. Still, it’s an excellent, generally little-known western. Well worth tracking down.

Four Guns to the Border (1954): ***/****