Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) may not seem like essential viewing. But for those who live under the eternally blue skies of Albuquerque, westerns are not just another form of home entertainment. They may well have started out that way. They pander. They are crowd-pleasers. They are period pieces with costumes and effects. And they use shots that have nothing to do with anything save someone’s eyes in close-up or nose in profile. But all in all, they deal with the rustic pioneers who settled here over a hundred years ago. This genre depicts their lives, not in documentaries, but in fiction. Creativity is not truth. Still, it has noble aims if roundabout methods. Last Train is an anecdote and morality play that concerns two towns. They are not Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Not on the surface. The setting is in Texas and the studio that made the film is in Arizona. But these are just names for places west and east of two major towns in the North Valley of the Rio Grande. They were here long before the six-gun. ABQ and SF are relatively small in size and population. But they are the heartland of the southwest. Further, their history is part and parcel of what westerns were once all about.
Last Train from Gun Hill is a classic. It was made in Old Tucson, where many westerns originated. And its sometimes overdramatic manner of dealing with a sudden injustice is entirely western. Two bad hombres rape and kill a Native American woman. That is how the film begins. The murderers, it turns out, have messed with the wrong woman. She is the wife of Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas), U.S. Marshall. Granted, this alone is unbelievable. But it gets the movie started and underpins everything that follows.
The victim’s father would like to see the culprit punished in the “old Indian way”: slowly. Morgan begs off, preferring his own method. The latter involves the use of law, but in a very personal fashion. He rides the rails to Gun Hill. There, he encounters Belden (Anthony Quinn), who is himself the law. Between Morgan and Belden is Linda. She is “the girl”, very comfortable in a saloon. She does what she can to stop the process at hand leading inexorably to even greater violence. Throughout, the emotional tone is taut. A lot of what happens is physical. After all, this is an action movie. But a great deal of mental wrestling occurs as well. The major characters must use both brains and brawn to stave off further bloodshed.
If it is any consolation, they fail. Guns light up the night before the nine o’clock train departs from Gun Hill. For a few fleeting moments the viewer is transported to a more mythic land where the theatrical is ascendent. There, it all makes perfect sense. And then, the return trip to reality takes control. For those who are so inclined, Last Train from Gun Hill on DVD is worth the while. It is an above-average movie from any standpoint. And if one is predisposed toward westerns, it is in fact essential viewing.