Directed by Delmer Daves; produced by William B. Hawks
On the run from the law, accused murderer ’Comanche’ Todd (Richard Widmark) is at last caught by his sadistic pursuer (George Mathews). His hanging will have to wait, however, as he becomes the only hope of the survivors of an Indian massacre as they try to slip unnoticed through the Apache-controlled ‘valley of death’, and on to safety.
With a promising start, showing Todd ambushing and shooting without mercy one of his hunters - establishing immediately and effectively the character’s anti-hero status - The Last Wagon follows a route between good and indifferent as bumpy as the trail the wagon takes in the film. Widmark is capable and credible; his fatalistic, practical character embodies both cynicism and sympathy in a believable proportion. The other roles are either less interesting or less consistent, such as Murphy’s sheriff, who calls Todd ‘the bravest man I’ve ever hunted’ but shows him no respect otherwise. Felicia Farr plays the obligatory love-interest; her feelings for Todd are not unrealistic but her character, the hard-riding frontier girl who, for some reason, is going across country to marry a townsman, pulling her little brother along, is almost a stereotype.
The writing is inconsistent, as well. There are small points that cause a number of questions, usually beginning with the phrase, “Why didn’t they…?” Following a shoot-out that leaves him with no ammunition, Todd throws away his rifle, as if no other rounds in the world will fit that firearm. After killing one opponent, he is captured by another, who not only doesn’t bring back the other’s body (though probably his own brother, there may not have been much sentiment in the family) but leaves behind a horse, with saddle, accoutrements and weapons, all surely worth a tidy sum. When he complains that one of his party wastes half the ammunition they have on killing a snake, Todd then abandons an arrow that he fashioned, with a bow, for their defence, despite having only five or six arrows. These points may seem piddling, but they indicate sloppy writing.
On the other hand, a good scene is when Todd, raised by Comanches, goads a couple of Apaches into hand-to-hand combat by telling them it takes two of their tribe to fight one of his. When they approach, they see a blue-eyed, blond white man and ask if he is Comanche. When this is confirmed, they accept the answer, perhaps because they understand that white children were sometimes taken in by Indian tribes (at least in the movies) or because they wouldn’t think a white man would make such an untrue claim. In any case, I found the exchange more intriguing than any other in the film.
There are good points to mention. The action is exciting, the fight scenes convincing, and the climax, though not what one expects, is satisfying, while the denouement is less so. There is a moment when Todd is listening to Apache drums in the night; the drumming ceases, and this gives definite tension to the scene before the drums begin again. Also, the scenery is well-used, the cinematography showing its colour and scope to advantage.
As an indirectly related aside, The Last Wagon started me thinking about how Hollywood treated Indians in its movies. I have come to believe that the treatment was not as bad as commonly held. Certainly, Indian characters are usually marginalised in plots, often treated simplistically, and, while native Americans are often used as villains, white people are more frequently the evil ones. The villains in half of John Wayne’s westerns and most of Randolph Scott’s are white men. When Indians are the antagonists, they are usually given a credible motive for their actions, even in films in which historical accuracy is disregarded (eg. They Died with Their Boots On). In The Last Wagon, Todd learns that the Apaches are on the warpath because “some whites” attacked an Indian camp and slaughtered 110 people, including women and children. Though the killing of innocents is never forgivable, the actions of the Apaches are at least given a motive more sympathetic than mere bloodlust. Oddly, the action of the villainous whites in this movie are not so treated.
Racism is definitely a factor in The Last Wagon. As related by Widmark’s character, “no white jury is going to convict white men of killing Indians”. And the hatred of one woman (Stephanie Griffin) toward her half-sister (Susan Kohner), who is part Navaho, is shown to be both malevolent and corrosive. Even between Indians tribes, there is animosity, as is shown in the previously mentioned scene of Todd challenging the Apaches.
In the final analysis, The Last Wagon has enough going for it to make it a good western, though not a very good western. An entertaining time-filler, its principal asset is its highly watchable star, Widmark.