Starring a very young, very blond, and very wooden Anne Bancroft, Robert Preston, best known for starring in The Music Man, an actor named Guy Madison, who’s such a dead ringer for Ben Affleck it makes you wonder if both men are the same vampire, and the now almost completely forgotten Victor Mature, the main problem with The Last Frontier is the acting. Except for Preston, who plays the half-mad, Custer-like Colonel Frank Marston, nobody is even remotely believable. Bancroft is incredibly hot, and incredibly bad. Guy Madison not only looks like Ben Affleck. He acts like Ben Affleck. Victor Mature reminded me of a pizza man from New Jersey lost in the old west.
But if Anthony Mann’s little-known western is miscast, it’s also a critique of Manifest Destiny that goes well beyond John Ford’s much better known Fort Apache, to which it owes an obvious debt. While John Ford concedes that the influence of the white man has not been entirely beneficial to the Indians, he places the blame squarely on one corrupt government agent, and on one rigid army officer who belongs in the Army of the Potomac more than he belongs in Monument Valley. Anthony Mann, on the other hand, looks forward to the anti-authoritarian politics of the 1960s, and even to the renaissance of Native American cinema in the 1990s.
The Last Frontier is testament to just how easy it was to get around the Motion Picture Production Code in the 1950s. Mann has no respect for the United States Army, the sanctity of marriage, or for “western civilization.” Compared to the bloodthirsty Colonel Marston, the Indians come off like a responsible nation state defending themselves against an imperialist madman. Fort Apache gives the last word to the regular army, which, once properly led, can be counted on to maintain the peace in the old west. The Last Frontier, on the other hand, ends on a dissonant note. Even though Victor Mature’s frontier scout is seen wearing a blue coat, the uniform of the United States Army in 1864, it’s clear that Mann had actually wanted him to head back out to the frontier, that the studio had forced him to edit the screenplay.
Michael, no relation to Anthony, Mann probably borrowed parts of the opening of The Last Frontier for his film The Last of the Mohicans. The Last Frontier opens with Jed Cooper, Mature, and two of his friends, returning from a hunting trip. There’s the white Gus, James Whitemore, his mentor and father figure. Then there’s Mungo, an Indian played by Pat Hogan, who, in spite of the name, was not an Irish American, but, rather, a member of the Pottawatomie nation in Oklahoma. The three men are surrounded by a war party led by the famous Lakota chief Red Cloud. Although Jed, Gus, and Mungo have had friendly relations with the Lakota for years, Red Cloud has decided to revoke their hunting privileges on tribal lands. When Jed protests – He and his two friends have never hunted more than they could eat or trapped more than they needed to make a living. – Red Cloud informs him that the United States Army is building forts along the border. Red Cloud is fine with a few white trappers and hunters. But he sees the danger of white civilization, and the eventual annexation of tribal lands
After the Lakota confiscate their furs, rifles, and horses, Jed, Mungo, and Gus have two choices. Gus suggests they head north to Canada. Jed and Mungo, on the other hand, are curious about the “civilization” that so worries Red Cloud. They head to the fort, where they meet Captain Riordan, Guy Madison, a level-headed officer who understands the frontier. He’s the rough equivalent of John Wayne’s Captain Kirby York from Fort Apache. Riordan offers to hire the three men as scouts at 25 dollars a month. Realizing they don’t have the money or the supplies to get to Canada, Gus agrees to come along. Jed Cooper immediately falls in love, quite literally as we shall see, with “civilization.”
Victor Mature has none of Daniel Day Lewis’ athletic grace, but Jed Cooper, like Nathaniel Poe from The Last of the Mohicans, is a white Indian, a man born on the frontier who’s free from the constraints of civilization. That’s fine with Riordan, who understands that Cooper can never live a regimented life, but not with Colonel Marston, Preston, who arrives a few days later. Colonel Frank Marston is a bitter authoritarian who’s been sent west because he was found to be an incompetent officer personally responsible for getting 1500 men killed at The Battle of Shiloh. The number is a clear exaggeration. Shiloh was a meat grinder of a battle, but the Union Army only lost a little over 1700 men, and no mere Colonel would have been in a position to lose 1500. It is possible that Mann intended Marston to be a fictionalized version of John Pope, who was the Supreme Commander of the Union Army at the disastrous Second Battle of Manassas, and who was later sent to Minnesota to fight the Indians in the Dakota War of 1862. Pope wound up ordering the largest mass execution in American history. But precise historical antecedents aren’t important. Colonel Marston, like George Armstrong Custer, is a bloodthirsty racist who hates the Indians, and a tyrant willing to get every one of his soldiers killed for his own personal vendetta.
Colonel Marston also has a beautiful, blond wife named Corinna. While Anne Bancroft, like Victor Mature, was an Italian American, they are coded very differently in The Last Frontier. Bancroft is barely recognizable. Her hair is bleached platinum blond. Her skin is lit to make her look as pale as possible. When Jed Cooper and Corinna Marston begin an affair, and when Cooper attempts to kill Marston to get him out of the way, Anthony Mann is clearly hinting that it’s an affair between a white woman an an Indian. Jed Cooper sees Corinna Marston as his gateway to a civilized life he’s never had. Corinna Marston sees Jed Cooper as a representative of the wilderness her brutal husband wants to destroy. As miscast as Mature is as a frontier scout, his Southern Italian looks come in handy. Unlike Anthony Mann, many Hollywood directors would cast Italians, not Indians, as Indians. So while Victor Mature may not look like a real Indian he does look like a Hollywood Indian. Victor Mature is a bad actor. Daniel Day Lewis is a great one. But Anthony Mann is a far more radical director than Michael Mann. He turns the racist Hollywood convention of casting Southern Europeans as Indians against itself.
Anthony Mann doesn’t stop at the idea of miscegenation. Corinna talks Jed out of killing her husband. But Mann clearly implies that the death of Colonel Frank Marston would have been better, not only for the Indians, but for all of the white men at the fort. Captain Riordan, unlike Marston, is a competent officer, and should have gotten the command in the first place. Marston is determined to lead his troops on a suicide mission to kill as many Indians as possible. Jed Cooper is right and Corinna Marston knows it, a point driven home when Colonel Marston tries to have Cooper assassinated by one of his henchmen. Cooper escapes, only to return to save most of Marston’s soldiers from an almost certain death. In the end, Marston gets what he deserves. He’s killed by Red Cloud’s braves. Riordan assumes command. For the short term, the war is over, but the eventual outcome, Mann lets us know, is inevitable. Unlike John Ford, who celebrates the arrival of western civilization in the old west, Anthony Mann all but mourns it.