Passed, which means you can pass a movie that is, at its base, a movie about the rape of a Native American woman and the bloodthirsty revenge plot that ensues from that. There's a lot of violence and killing in this one. It's all about protecting one's offspring from the evils they commit. It's a movie about death and it has the location of "Gun Hill" in the title. There's a lot going on and it still passes. I don't mind, because it's a solid film. Passed.
DIRECTOR: John Sturges
I keep forgetting to throw things on my list. The good news is that I'm not too far off from when I was supposed to be writing about this anyway, so it's not going to be all that different to when I was supposed to actually write about it. Regardless, this is a movie that has been sitting on my shelf for a while. I have a book named 501 Must-See Movies. This was under the Westerns section and I had never heard of it before. Much of the internet probably hasn't heard of this one either because I could only order it through Amazon if I bought something else besides this movie. It's a really weird subcategory of Amazon stuff. They will only send it out to you if you bundle it with something else. Forget about shipping. They won't even bother to send it to you unless you can make a larger purchase.
Evil confessions: As a film snob, I hate when people tell me that they can't do black-and-white movies. I also hate when people tell me that they hate Westerns. It's so absolute. I really love black-and-white movies. Westerns aren't my favorite genres, but there are some absolutely gorgeous movies that are completely Westerns. But I will be honest with you. When I saw that Last Train from Gun Hill was a Western in Technicolor and VistaVision, my heart breathed a sigh of relief. I don't know why. I totally like black-and-white. But Westerns are infamously forgettable for me. It might be a me thing. Rom-coms, war films, and Westerns all tend to have really forgettable titles for me and that forces the stories to all kind of bleed together. Part of that also comes from the fact that the Western can be a horrifically cheap film. In the spirit of the B-movie, often older Westerns were reused sets and costumes from another production. They may have been hurried into production. Some Westerns --and please note that I don't want to generalized all Westerns --spoke only about the masculine spirit and the taming of the West. They rolled out of pulp novels where adventure was the final goal. But that stuff becomes a little bit tiring after a while. The film noir class I'm about to finish? There was a chance that it could have been a Western class. While I would have learned a lot more from that class because I've seen my fair share of film noir, I did secretly enjoy being a quasi-expert at film noir.
Last Train from Gun Hill is absolutely rad. It might be up there on the list of favorite Westerns because it is wrought with complexity. When I like a Western, I tend to really like them. Like Gun Hill, these are the movies that have a complex moral problem at the center of it. Westerns, for what they are, have the opportunity to be mini-Twilight Zone episodes. I'm talking about movies like Rio Bravo or The Searchers, where there is no clear right answer. Sure, we know the protagonist is the good guy, but we also can kinda / sorta relate to the bad guy. There's an internal conflict that the protagonist has to confront directly for the story to progress and that is the stuff that really gets me interested in the movie. In this case, Gun Hill is really about how we're rooting for the protagonist to sell his soul a bit. He never really becomes a bad guy. But like Touch of Evil, we enjoy seeing a good guy get his hands just a little bit more dirty than he'd do normally. Both Touch of Evil and Last Train from Gun Hill start with this protagonist who has a clear understanding of good and evil. Across from that protagonist is an antagonist whose morality has swayed from the norm and sees justice as his own thing. Matt Morgan is first introduced as a sheriff of a small town and is describing his exploits to children, who clearly love the story. His bliss is derived from a sense of a job well done and his community being happy. He used to be partners with Craig Belden, but Belden's sense of happiness comes from having power.
These characters represent not necessarily good versus evil, although a case can be made. Instead, one character turned left. Another character turned right. Matt made the decision to do something altruistic with his skills. I feel like this is a biblical parable about the servants and talents. It's a bit on the nose if I decided to go directly that route, but there are parallels. It is because he chose that life of altruism that has kept his skills honed and accessible. Knowing that there is no sense of promotion behind the job means that Matt must continue to stay fit and active for the sake of maintaining efficiency. Contrasting this with Craig Belden, Belden also has nothing to lose. But because he doesn't have a goal to set, his drive is simply the ambiguous acquisition of "more." His morality has slipped a bit. He is internally focused and has perverted all of his needs into something pretty gross. From his perspective, he is doing the right thing. After all, a devotion to family is traditionally a positive trait. However, because Craig is so removed from the common man, unlike Matt, he takes that to an extreme level. He acknowledges that Rick did something bad, but is unable to understand why Matt wants him so.
It makes Matt a complex character. Matt is a man sidled with the burden of being right. From an objective perspective, Matt has tracked down the killer of the citizen of his town. He has a duty and a responsibility to bring this man in, if for no other reason than to prevent future rapes. But the real struggle is that this is a personal quest. This is Blood Sport. This is The Punisher. He is there because he needs to get revenge. We sees these two elements of Matt fight. He is constantly holding the violent Matt at bay and the entire movie isn't about whether or not Matt can get to Rick, but rather if Rick survives Matt's rage. That really defines what we have to think of an antagonist. The antagonist isn't keeping Rick from Matt. He wants to. Boy-oh-boy, he wants to. But what he's really doing is riding this very fine line of feeding one beast versus another beast, despite the fact that Anthony Quinn's Craig Belden doesn't want either one of these choices. Belden is a character who is defined by power. No one in the town questions the actions of Belden, so seeing this character completely lose power and being forced into a binary choice that he doesn't care for is really compelling. From an audience's perspective, we're trying to see how these choices that Belden makes throughout the movie are keeping Matt from murdering Rick, but Craig only sees it as "I'm going to get my boy back." Fascinating stuff.
The movie is just also very tight. It never really lags, despite the fact that the protagonist just hangs out in a room for the majority of the movie. It's an odd thing because so much of it becomes psychological. It never doesn't feel like an action movie, but the beats of action are few. Yet, it feels like a movie that is overwhelmed with action. There's a lot of story. There's a clear countdown for the end of the movie, nicely summarized in the title. Also, I don't even get to mention the other rapist. The story comes down to a guy fighting for his kid and we don't really care about the other guy because it doesn't really align with the theme.
I can't help but make the connection to Brock Turner. It's the same story, but the Western setting creates an interesting story to tell. Brock Turner is human garbage. He's the worst. His life shouldn't get any better because he's a monster. But the only way that society was able to spit on that guy was through social media. The Wild West creates something really interesting in storytelling. There were laws in the Wild West. I know that. I'm not new to this whole game. But life was way more cheap. I feel like killing someone was a lot more reasonable than it was today. Watching this movie in the wake of Brock Turner is an interesting argument. Matt knows that he shouldn't kill Rick / Brock Turner. But there's that temptation for the justice of society to say that he doesn't belong in society. He's been raised in a position of privilege his entire life and he's dealing with consequences for the first time. But like Brock's dad, whose argument was "He likes steak", Craig has no way to distance himself from the crime Rick committed and what is good for society. It's odd, because Craig Belden does represent privilege. There's a lot of stuff that lines up in a haunting way.
I liked this movie. Listen, Westerns are hard. You either love 'em or hate 'em. I'm never the biggest fan of the genre as a whole, but this is one of those movies that proves that the setting doesn't necessarily determine the content of the film. It's pretty great.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.