Delmer Daves was active in Hollywood from the 1920s to the 1960s. He studied law at Stanford and was initially a writer, part-time actor and ‘adviser’, working at MGM and Paramount and then contracted at Warner Bros. He didn’t become a director until 1943 when he was nearing 40. He is perhaps best known for the Westerns he made in the 1950s, the most well-known being Broken Arrow (1950) and 3.10 to Yuma (1957). The Last Wagon was a CinemaScope Western Daves directed for 20th Century Fox as another entry in the cycle of Westerns from the late 1940s/early 1950s which begin to engage with the representation of Native Americans and the racism of most Hollywood narratives, Broken Arrow being one of the first. The Last Wagon has some elements in common with Ford’s The Searchers which was also released in 1956. It is not as profound or as challenging as Ford’s masterpiece but I’m surprised that it hasn’t received more attention. In his Encyclopaedia of Western Movies, Phil Hardy suggests it might be Daves’ best Western, but doesn’t really say much about the film. Julian Petley in The BFI Western Companion (ed. Ed Buscombe) suggests that Daves didn’t get the recognition he deserved in the US, though he was rated by several French critics. In the UK it wasn’t until Michael Walker explored Daves’ Westerns in depth for The Movie Book of the Western (eds Cameron & Pye, Studio Vista 1996) that the film received proper attention. Walker refers to an interview by Christopher Wicking (Screen, July/October 1969) in which Daves says that the wagon train experience was part of his own family history and that after he graduated in 1926 he lived for three months with both Hopi and Navajo communities in Arizona. He also seems to have been a ‘liberal Democrat’ (Wikipedia).
I would classify the film as a ‘liberal Western’, although it is uneven as a narrative, undermining any simplistic notion of a ‘message film’. The opening few minutes are spectacular and tremendously exciting. One man on foot is being hunted by four others on horseback across ravishing landscapes in Northern Arizona around Sedona in 1873. Much of this is in long shot compositions with tiny figures against the landscape by Wilfrid Cline, a Western film specialist, facilitated by the editing of the equally experienced Hugh Fowler and with a score by Lionel Newman. The lone man is ‘Comanche’ Todd, played with customary vigour by Richard Widmark. He manages to kill three of his pursuers but is eventually captured by the fourth who turns out to be Sheriff ‘Bull’ Parker (George Mathews). At this point the script seems to be flawed. Harper wounds Todd in the shoulder and then treats him brutally before a wagon train arrives on the trail led by ex-Colonel Normand, comprising his family and others. They accept Parker and his prisoner, but as a Christian group they are troubled to see Todd chained, almost like a crucifixion on a wagon wheel. The script problems are two-fold. First, Todd’s wound seems to disappear and secondly Harper will go on to state that there is a $1,000 reward for the arrest of Todd, yet his crime involves the killing of Harper’s three brothers which we have just seen happen. We won’t learn the truth about his crimes until the end of the film.
The second section of the narrative sees Harper pitted against the wagon train community because of his ‘inhuman’ treatment of Todd. We learn from Harper that Todd was captured by Comanches as a young boy and grew up as an ‘Indian’. Harper’s stance is clearly racist – to justify his inhuman treatment. During an altercation between Harper and the wagoneers an axe is dropped and Todd picks it up, throws it and kills Harper. As Walker points out, this sequence seems almost like a collective ‘Freudian slip’. It’s as if dropping the axe and pushing Harper close enough for Todd to throw it was unconsciously willed by the group. Later that night a group of young people from the wagon train leave the camp to go skinny-dipping. When they return they find the camp has been attacked by Apache warriors (they are on a notorious trail through Apache territory) and everyone has been killed – except Comanche Todd who, still manacled to a wagon wheel, has miraculously survived when the wagon was pushed over a cliff.
The third section sees the rescue of Todd and the agreement that he will guide them through Apache territory to safety. The small group includes the Colonel’s two daughters, one of whom is white and one bi-racial after his second marriage to a Native American. There is also a younger boy who has become attached to Todd and his older sister Jenny (Felicia Farr). It was this couple who first supported Todd. Finally there are two other older teenagers, one of whom has been against Todd from the beginning. I won’t spoil the narrative from this point but it should be clear that it has taken a different turn. Todd has to convince the group to do things his way – the Comanche way – if they are to survive. This involves some philosophical debates and some explorations of Native American cultures. The aggressive boy displays the most open racism but the white step-sister Valinda is perhaps the most danger to Todd. She resents her own sister as well as contact with Todd. Her step-sister Jolie is played by Susan Kohner who in 1959 would be Oscar-nominated for her role as a young bi-racial woman who ‘passes’ for white in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. Kohner’s mother, Lupita Tovar was a Mexican actor who worked for various Hollywood studios on Spanish language versions of English language films. Kohner’s role in The Last Wagon has more/different meanings in retrospect after her success in 1959. This is especially true in relation to a statement Jolie makes in the final sequence of the the film on her changed ideas about her own identity as a bi-racial woman. There were more Mexicans than Native Americans who became stars or leading players in the studio Hollywood era, but they were still discriminated against and subject to forms of racial type-casting.
This third section of the film is the most interesting for me and it is dominated by the idea that Comanche Todd is in effect teaching the youth about Comanche (and Apache) culture and why they need to know about it in order to survive. Widmark is central to the success of the film and his authority as a star actor is just as important as the good sense he speaks in the dialogue. The sequence is quite ‘talky’ for a Western but broken up by the long shot cinematography and bursts of action, each of which is in some way metaphorical in relation to the predicament facing the group.
In the final section, the script (by Daves, James Edward Grant and Gwen Bagni Gielgud) manages to bring the group to safety, once again through an action engineered by Todd. This then leads to a closing section in which Todd is ‘tried’ by General Howard, the historical figure (known as the ‘Christian General’) who also appears in Daves’ film Broken Arrow. Each of the group give their own testimony and even those who have shown racist views are prepared to support Todd. I did find this ‘closure’ to be too sentimental and it is interesting to note that it is the opposite of the closure of The Searchers in which Ethan Edwards is himself unable to rejoin the community, possibly because his own racial hatred is still too strong. I don’t intend to pursue a comparison of the two films here, but I do want to point to the way that both films deal with the ‘war’ waged by white settlers and Union cavalry against Native American peoples by means of a proxy – the bi-racial or bi-cultural characters that come between the two main protagonists. The production context in 1955-6 also suggests films which consciously or not refer to incidents in the Civil Rights struggle such as the furore following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling of 1954. What’s interesting also is that The Last Wagon creates a narrative in which a group of ‘juveniles’ is ‘instructed’ by a character who has spent his adolescence learning to be a Comanche. Michael Walker usefully points out that in this period of ‘juvenile delinquency films’, it is often a ‘liberal’ figure who gains the respect of the youth who learn to trust him, e.g. the Glenn Ford character in Blackboard Jungle (1955) or Edward Platt’s juvenile officer in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The same actor, Nick Adams plays one of the gang in Rebel and the most racist character in in The Last Wagon. Todd is not ‘liberal’ but he ‘knows’ both white and Native American culture. The film may well be radical in the ways in which it attempts to ‘recuperate’ Todd’s behaviour and make him eligible to return to white society, while still critiquing it. Michael Walker has much more to say about the ideological underpinnings of the film and his piece is a must-read for anyone interested in Westerns.
The Last Wagon is a ‘journey Western’ which enables a form of ‘conversion’ for its group of travellers and it also includes a romance but most of all it engages with the history of the West even if it doesn’t present us with a Native American actor playing a significant character – the Apache warriors are seen mainly in long shot. Here’s a trailer for the film which is available as a ‘complete movie’ on a well-known streaming site: