Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: The Last Command (1955)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Movie Review: The Last Command (1955)

by Tony Dayoub

There is no way to describe The Last Command except as earnest in its inaccuracy. Still, this 1955 western, unavailable on DVD, is likely the most accurate and best depiction of the Battle of the Alamo as seen through the eyes of one of its heroes, Jim Bowie. In fact, the film begins with the song "Jim Bowie," lyrics by Sydney Clare ("On the Good Ship Lollipop") and music composed by the great Max Steiner. The Austrian Steiner was Warner Brothers go-to composer in the early days, responsible for the famous themes for Gone With the Wind (1939) and Casablanca (1942) among others (by the time he composed the score for this Republic film he was working freelance). As sung by Gordon MacRae—the very same year he hit his career peak in the movie Oklahoma!—"Jim Bowie" immediately sets the reverential tone for the picture.

Good thing it's the stolid Sterling Hayden playing Bowie. Hayden already had The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Johnny Guitar (1954) under his belt by the time The Last Command rolled around. His laconic dynamism keeps the character of Bowie both grounded and exciting, just a hair away from decking someone if he pushes Bowie the wrong way. And even if that quality is not easily discernible to his Texian compadres, Hayden's 6'5" frame lets you easily buy into why so many of the salty men in this story respect and choose to follow him despite his softspoken nature. That and his prowess with the eponymous Bowie knife he became known for.

To read the rest of review at Decisions at Sundown click here.


Hokahey said...

I've seen this movie - and being an Alamo buff - I love this version. It is accurate, as you say. It and Disney's Adventures of Davy Crockett set up the scenarios of Crockett going down fighting and Bowie slashing away with his knife from his cot that set up some of the scenarios that Wayne emulated in his version of the battle, which I also love - though I grant it's not as grounded in fact as The Last Command. Interesting how Crockett goes down by blowing up the kegs of powder - ah, so does Wayne's Crockett - only with a bigger bang.

Tony Dayoub said...

Yeah, this film has some glaring inaccuracies, but I think it's the most faithful. I particularly like the inclusion of the subplot involving Lt. Dickinson's family as a portal to view what happened to families that stayed at the Alamo during te battle.

Anonymous said...

I think the film was underrated. Critics at the time thought Hayden was too deadpan. But, seems actual Bowie was that way. Especially, in the last few years of his life.
As for Wayne's version, there is speculation that Republic borrowed much of the script Grant wrote for Wayne's original, unfilmed version. Grant seems to have taken liberty of reclaiming his child when developing the Wayne script in 1959.
As for the film itself, it wasn't just a sprawling epic. It was three films. A western, an epic of a battle and a deep philosophical study on democracy. For the third point, the uncut version must be seen. In the edited version, there remains the Travis Dickerson debate on Jeffersonian Democracy and the scène where Travis addresses the compound where much of the garrison is about to depart. After the speech , where Bowie stands by his rival, the garrison makes a decision to stay. When the Tennesseans decide to stay, the men decide and Crockett follows their lead. This after several comments by Crockett about the burden of leadership. Edited is a interesting discussion among the garrison, the night before the last attack, on the meaning of life, faith and family. This should have remained. Overall a flawed but interesting film.
As for the 2004 version, I'm unimpressed with letting it go as a bomb. So was the Molly Maguires, the Right Stuff, Its A Wonderful Life and several others.
The film did receive some strongly supportive reviews and has, it seems to have done OK to well on DVD. Of criticisms, well one made in the Christian Science Monitor was of portraying Santa Anna on a bad light (something Wayne did not do). Problem, Santa Anna was a pilandering, murderous sort. General. Cos, under his command, was portrayed as others saw him, a man of principle.
This version was a mute study of individuals facing the challenge of raising above their individual flaws, at a very flawed period of history, to become something larger as a moment in time required. Historically, its the most accurate. Billy Rae Thornton's Crockett is not only visually but scripted as the most profound.

Charles Wallner said...

I made an error about General Cos. He was Santa Anna's brother in law. Not considered competent. It is General Castrillion, the man of principle.
By the way, anonymous is not my name. Charles Wallner - Cincinnati, Ohio.