Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 4, 2021)
Fairly fresh off the success of 1957’s Gunfight at the OK Corral, director John Sturges returns to the well with 1959’s Last Train from Gun Hill. Sturges handles another Western via this vehicle.
As Native American Catherine Morgan (Ziva Rodann) and young son Petey (Lars Henderson) return from a visit with her father, two men accost her. They rape and murder her while Petey escapes.
Petey reaches his father, Marshal Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas), and sets the lawman on a quest for revenge. This complicates when Morgan learns one of the criminals – Rick Belden (Earl Holliman) – is the son of Matt’s old friend, wealthy cattle baron Craig Beldon (Anthony Quinn).
As of 2021, Sturges’ most famous movie probably stands as 1963’s The Great Escape, but most of his well-known flicks stay in the Western genre. Corral remains noted, and 1960’s The Magnificent Seven offers a classic.
This doesn’t mean viewers should ignore Sturges’ other flicks, and the solid Train shows why. A novel, clever Western, the movie provides a wholly involving tale.
Granted, parts of Train follow a standard path, especially related to the way Craig controls the town where he lives. Plenty of Westerns feature powerful figures who own the local population and pit a protagonist who needs to battle against this power.
Even though this notion could seem trite, Train uses it well. The movie follows an unusual narrative in that our lead knows who killed him wife from the very start.
Most films would leave some kind of mystery/investigation and cap with the main character’s revelation that his best pal’s son killed his wife. Instead, Matt knows this almost immediately, so the tension stems from how he’ll execute justice, not his dawning realization that he needs to confront/oppose his friend.
Of course, the fact Craig dominates Gun Hill becomes the focus of the drama and the reason Train doesn’t need the revelation I mentioned. Because Matt can’t rely on support from local law enforcement or anyone else, Craig’s control makes our lead a trapped man.
Do we know that Matt will prevail? Yeah – 1950s Westerns weren’t big on depressing twists – but Train milks the story via the ways it creates for Matt to escape.
These keep us on the proverbial edge of our seats and form appealing story elements. We want to see how Matt will survive this situation and the movie keeps us with it the whole way.
A good cast helps. Douglas gives nice bite and determination to Matt, while Quinn brings dimensionality to a character who could easily become a stock tyrant.
This lets Train offer layers of complexity unusual to the genre. Normally we get one-dimensional good guys and bad guys, but Craig doesn’t seem black and white, so we find more depth than I would expect.
I also appreciate the surprisingly progressive view of Native Americans. Face it: 1950s Westerns aren’t renowned for positive depictions of these folks.
Not only does Train feature a white man married to a Native woman, but also it frowns upon the casual racism exhibited by some characters. Granted, it would be nice to see an actual Native American as Catherine, not the Israeli-born Rodann, but I still appreciate the anti-racist tone of the film.
All of this adds up to a satisfying genre flick. Train may not stand as one of the greatest Westerns I’ve seen, but it becomes a solid movie.