My first encounter with The Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) was a few years ago when I was working on Dancing in the West (2013), which features a few pieces of found footage from the film. I have more in Iron Horse of the Studio (2015) which lifted the train outside and arriving into Gun Hill where the majority of the action takes place. Otherwise I had very little knowledge of the film beyond that fact it starred Kirk Douglas who arrives on the train.
But why does he arrive in Gun Hill asking for Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn). Away from anything even related to Trains we have a Native American mother and son, whose clearly mixed race, he has a white father. Riding through the woods on a horse drawn buggy. Passing Rick Belden (Earl Holliman) and Smithers (Brian G. Hutton) who are her attackers and killers. It’s pretty obvious what their intentions are they as they up alongside them. Throwing the boy aside, they don’t wait long before they rape and kill her. Usually it’s the white woman whose raped by the Native American in the classical form of the Western. Here the roles are reversed, the woman – Catherine Morgan (Ziva Rodann) whose seen as worthless and little more than a sexual plaything to be abused as if she has no soul – not in the Christian white man’s view.
Back in her home town, a group of boys are after a retelling of a classic gunfight from 9-10 years ago. Gun control has been enforced in this town, making it a far safer place to be, far from the crime committed in the wilderness of the frontier. Town Marshall Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) whose happy to retell the story, creating his own legend for awestruck kids who want to experience the danger of the past as modern day audiences do through watching these films. It’s only when he’s led by his son to his wife body. Clearly upset and equipped with evidence (a saddle with the initials B.C.) He knows where he must go, but doesn’t know what he will really find on arrival. His old friend Craig Belden, could he be the killer and rapist of his wife or is there more to this than meets the eye. Turning against a friend is something no man wants to do or takes lightly.
We haven’t even met patriarch and cattle baron Belden who has power not just over his son but also the town of Gun Hill. Not only does he want his saddle but he allows his son to be beaten up by his right hand-man. A sadistic side that is rarely seen, usually the father deals out the violence himself, not delegating to his staff, who happily take over. It’s a challenge to his son’s Rick manhood. He wants him to defend himself, not so much to win but to stand his ground. Belden could be compared with Broken Lance‘s (1954) Matt Devereaux (Spender Tracy) driven by power, mistrust and frustration. His whole family are slowly driven. Whilst a grief-stricken Morgan dressed in black throughout the rest of the film, arrives with the saddle in tow, he knows what he has to do is going to hurt. Is he an avenger of death in human form with the protection of a marshal’s badge, allowing him to deal out the justice he seeks, that any other man would have to be careful to achieve.
Gun Hill to Morgan is like traveling back in time to the lawless town he once tamed, except it’s not his to even attempt to tame. Instead to try and remove two elements to face justice back home. No one is prepared to help in, living in the pockect’s of his old friend who will allow safe passage on the last train if his son goes free. It’s a lot to ask of Morgan having come all this way to give up on his mission without so much as a fight. He does have one ally in the long-term girlfriend Linda (Carolyn Jones) who wont even go home with Belden. Her reluctance works in the favour of the visiting marshal, an angel you could say whose fighting her own conscience in a town that wants her to conform. Proposing a wager on her own success, only to withdraw when she realises she’s just as bad as them. A typical woman of the frontier whose in s relationship with the man of the town, only to see the error of her ways. However she’s soul searching throughout the film, making her stand apart from other women in the genre.
I come away from Gun Hill a western that really does manipulate the world it’s functioning in. retelling stories of the West as if it’s all be won. A Train that rides right into the middle of town to position it as the main focus of the film. Whilst a marshal is happy to stay in the comfort of a hotel room waiting for the right time to face the music of the town that wants him dead. The hotel room becomes his own prison and temporary marshals office, working away from home, the law never left him throughout his time in Gun Hill is short lived but he has an effect that hopefully will send ripples through the town. I’m glad I’ve been able to piece together the clips I’ve seen previously, making sense of them now has allowed me to see a more complex western that could be darker. Made up with solid performance by a cast who are enjoying a script that goes further than your standard corruption in town.