Last Train From Gun Hill

Director: John Sturges
Screenplay: James Poe (based on the story “Showdown” by Les Crutchfield)
Stars: Kirk Douglas (Marshal Matt Morgan), Anthony Quinn (Craig Belden), Carolyn Jones (Linda), Earl Holliman (Rick Belden), Brad Dexter (Beero), Brian Hutton (Lee Smithers), Ziva Rodann (Catherine Morgan), Bing Russell (Skag), Val Avery (Steve, Horseshoe Bartender), Walter Sande (Sheriff Bartlett)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1959
Country: U.S.
Last Train From Gun Hill Blu-ray
Last Train From Gun Hill

John Sturges’s Last Train From Gun Hill is a fascinating psychological Western, one of a number of such films that brought new levels of drama, emotion, and human insight to a genre that was often thought of primarily in terms of its pulpy iconography. Like Fred Zinneman’s High Noon (1952), the preeminent psychological Western of its era, Last Train is predicated largely on the threat of violence, rather than its constant enactment. While fists do fly and guns fired, the film’s tension is wrought more from suspense than action. And, like John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), the other most prominent psychological Western of the the ’50s, it underscores in explicit terms the violence of racism toward Native Americans (other films that did similar work around this time include 1950’s Broken Arrow, 1951’s Across the Wide Missouri, and 1954’s Broken Lance).

The film opens with a Native American woman (Ziva Rodann) and her young son being accosted in the woods by two surly, drunken young men. While they are raping her, the son escapes on one of the men’s horses and rides it into town where he summons his father, Marshal Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas). The boy leads Morgan to the scene of the crime, where they find that she has been killed. Morgan becomes determined to find the men responsible and see that justice is served. The ornate saddle on the horse his son stole leads him to the town of Gun Hill, which is essentially owned by a ruthless and corrupt cattle baron named Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn), whose only son, Rick (Earl Holliman), was one of the rapists. And, as it turns out, Morgan and Belden used to be good friends, although the genial nature of their reunion after so many years turns quickly sour when Morgan determines that Rick is the man he needs to arrest and Belden refuses to turn him over.

As the title suggests, Last Train From Gun Hill is framed by a clear deadline, in this case the 9:00 train that Morgan must get on with Rick in tow, a feat that seems all but impossible given that everyone in town, including the sheriff (Walter Sande), refuse to help him out of fear of Belden. Well, that’s not entirely true—he is helped at various points by a woman named Linda (Carolyn Jones, best remembered as Morticia Addams on the 1960s television series The Addams Family), who Morgan first meets on the train into Gun Hill and is eventually revealed to be Belden’s estranged mistress (there are numerous suggestions that she is a former prostitute). Life has made Linda cynical and tough, but she develops a soft spot for Morgan, so she helps him when and where she can while still chastising him for the apparently suicidal nature of his mission.

Kirk Douglas, who also co-produced the film through his recently created production company Bryna Productions, is as square-jawed and resolute as ever, but he also gives Morgan some crucial nuance by always keeping the line fuzzy between his desire for justice and his desire for revenge. He constantly evokes the law as justification for his actions, but it is hard not to see those admonitions as a convenience that gives his revenge mission an air of legality. Even though he follows the law with his arrest warrants, he still has a hot temper that flairs regularly, especially when the townspeople disparage his dead wife’s race. We really see that conflict boiling when Morgan gets a hold of Rick and winds up cornered in an upstairs hotel room with his quarry handcuffed to a bed and Belden and dozens of his men armed and waiting outside. As shots fly, the insouciant Rick sarcastically suggests that Morgan look out the window into which the bullets are flying, and in a sudden rage Morgan grabs the bed and hurls it and Rick against the window and right into the line of fire.

Last Train From Gun Hill was adapted from an original screen story by Les Crutchfield, who is best known as a prolific producer of Gunsmoke scripts on both the radio and television (having written 138 of them, he is second only to co-creator and producer John Meston in sheer quantity). The screenplay was written by James Poe, who specialized in adaptations. Poe had recently won an Oscar for co-writing Around the World in 80 Days (1957), and he would go on to score additional nods for adapting Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1959), Lilies of the Field (1963), and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969).

The production reunited much of the impressive team that producer Hal B. Wallis had assembled for Gunfight at the O.K. Corrall (1957) two years earlier, including Douglas, Sturges, cinematographer Charles Lang (How the West Was Won), composer Dimitri Tiomkin (High Noon, Giant), art directors Hal Pereira (Vertigo) and Walter Tyler (The Ten Commandments), and editor Warren Low (The Bad Seed). Sturges was at a particularly crucial moment in his directing career, as he had already helmed several impressive films, including Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and The Old Man and the Sea (1958), and was on the cusp of arguably his best known films, The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). His direction here is duly impressive, as he wrings significant tension out of characters literally standing around and waiting. Working with Douglas and Quinn, he develops the central tension between Morgan and Belden with subtlety and depth. Belden is a bad guy, no doubt—a Western mafioso who is able to keep an entire town in his grip—but he is also a father and a widower and thus a shadowy double of Morgan, the man of integrity and legality who is hardly immune from his own violent desires. Thus, the lines of good and evil, right and wrong, just and unjust are not always clear, forcing us to reckon with our own moral stance while also wrangling with the very real question of how Morgan can possibly get on the last train alive.

Last Train From Gun Hill Paramount Presents Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
  • English Dolby TrueHD 2.0 monaural
  • German Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural
  • French Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish, German, French
  • “Filmmaker Focus: Leonard Maltin on Last Train from Gun Hill” featurtte
  • Original theatrical trailers for Last Train from Gun Hill, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Furies, and The Black Orchid
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    Release DateJune 15, 2021

    Last Train From Gun Hill was shot in Paramount’s VistaVision widescreen process, which ran the 35mm film horizontally, rather than vertically, through the camera, resulting in an image roughly twice the size of conventional 35mm film. That means a lot more detail and image information, which really shows in Paramount’s gorgeous 1080p/AVC-encoded presentation on this “Paramount Presents” Blu-ray. From the opening credits, with bright red, three-dimensional words set against a burlap background, to the open vistas of the Arizona desert, to the flaming hotel at the end of the film, the image is gorgeously rendered with excellent detail and color (note the bright purple chairs in the hotel lobby). Digital restoration has removed all traces of age and wear, leaving us with a vibrant, filmlike image that maintains a fine veneer of grain and looks excellent in motion. The original two-channel monaural soundtrack is presented in lossless Dolby TrueHD and sounds great, giving good range and depth to Dimitri Tiomkin’s lush orchestral score. Being a monaural soundtrack, there isn’t a great deal of depth and directionality, but it works for the film. In terms of supplements, there isn’t much here. We get a 7-minute “Filmmaker Focus” featurette in which film critic and historian Leonard Maltin gives us a quick run-down of the essentials behind the film’s production and reception. The only other supplement is a quartet of trailers for Last Train From Gun Hill, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Furies, and The Black Orchid (the last of which was included, I supposed, simply because Anthony Quinn is in it) that are inexplicably presented in lousy-looking 480i.

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    Overall Rating: (3.5)

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