Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Westerns and the overall filmmaking process. Click here to listen.
Week 149: The Last Command
For those who don’t know, this film has an interesting backstory. It was a long time John Wayne project before he fell out with Republic and ended up making his own Alamo film several years later. It’s a shame too because the script for this film is tighter than the bloated epic he ended up producing.
Frank Lloyd’s The Last Command is incredibly economical in its storytelling. The director and writers show that a film can be made about the Alamo without a long runtime. In fact, the famous battle is only a small portion of the film, the rest exploring what occurred to Jim Bowie before he reached the fort. Though I doubt its historical accuracy, the lead-up to the war with Santa Anna is dramatic and intriguing cinema.
Hayden as Bowie gets a chance to stretch himself here, playing several quiet scenes that challenge his skills more than his other westerns. Surprisingly, he excels in these soft, often romantic moments though his strength and grit remain his best assets. When Hayden mounts a horse and rides off at a gallop or fights his way through a scene, I am reminded that he is one Hollywood leading man who really feels authentic to the Western genre, as if he could have truly lived during that time.
Speaking of fights, one of the film’s best scenes is the knife duel between Hayden and Ernest Borgnine, playing from what I can tell a totally fictionalized character. Borgnine is one of the strongest supporting parts of the film. Hunnicutt is just alright as Davy Crockett but ultimately forgettable. Richard Carlson plays a decent William Travis (my namesake) and shows me a different side of his acting. Before this I only knew him as the nerdy doctor in Abbott and Costello’s Hold That Ghost.
Overall, this is just as good as any movie made about the Alamo, a subject that still awaits a definitive portrayal. Though wrongly set during the day time, the battle is impressively staged. Lloyd condenses it all in ten minutes and the effect is a startling, brutal sequence. He also does something new with the “line in the dirt” mythic moment, staging it during a rain storm, an effective choice.
Watched on Criterion Channel.