Last Train From Gun Hill, the 1959 Western starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn, has a plot suspiciously similar to 3:10 to Yuma, both the 1957 original and last year's remake. Our idealistic hero has to put the bad guy on a specific train at a specific time. Standing between our hero and the train station is a small army of the bad guy's gunslinger compadres. Looks like there's no way our hero can make that train. He's bound to get himself killed trying. But besides the fact that he doesn't particularly want to commit suicide, there's another reason for our hero to second guess his own plan and for us in the audience to wonder if he might---might---decide the effort's not worth the cost. There's a part of our hero that doesn't want to put the bad guy in jail.
In 3:10 to Yuma it's because the bad guy is charming and intelligent and persuasive in making the case that our hero should just let him go. Add to this the fact that the bad guy starts to root for our hero to succeed and begins to help him, even though this is obviously not in his own best interest.
In Last Train From Gun Hill, the bad guy's a whiny coward who's not even a bold outlaw like Glenn Ford/Russell Crowe's Ben Wade. He's just a spoiled punk of a rich man's son who commits his crime out of drunken impulse. There's no reason for our hero to sympathize with him, and he doesn't. But he does feel bad for the punk's father, who is an old friend of our hero. The friend knows his son's no good but he loves him anyway and he begs our hero to let the boy go for friendship's sake. Our hero sympathizes and some part of him wants to give in, but we know he's not going to, and it's not just because our hero is a lawman and the law's the law. The victim of the punk's drunken impulse was our hero's wife.
It's very late in the 19th Century, the frontier has closed. Civilization has arrived. People have telephones. The local marshal, Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas), is married to an Indian woman and nobody in town thinks anything about this, the Indian wars are that far in the past. Morgan was one of the last of the gunfighting lawmen but those days are so long ago now that when he tells the kids stories about his glory days he treats them as comic adventures about some guy with his name who wasn't really him. Everybody in these parts these days is quiet, law-abiding, peaceable, friendly, and decent in their way. The town bears far less resemblance to Deadwood than it does to Grovers Corners. We're in an idyllic, small-town, modern America.
And into this idyll wander the punk kid and his punkier sidekick. They're not from around here. They're from way over in Gun Hill and civilization hasn't reached that far. It might as well be another country, and in a way it is. It's an autocracy ruled by the punk kid's father, a cattle baron named Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn) who owns everything and everybody in Gun Hill and is all the law there is and as far as he's concerned all the law there needs to be.
In short, the two punks are pretty much invaders from a foreign country where our democratic values and laws do not apply, and if you want to see in that an allegory for the Cold War nightmare about the godless Commies crawling out from under our beds to subvert our way of life you're probably not far off. Fortunately, the movie doesn't make much of it; the filmmakers were just drawing on what was in the in air at the time in order to manipulate the fears and angers of their audience, because that's something popular entertainment does by definition.
One morning, the commies---I'm sorry, the two punks---surprise Matt's wife on a road in the woods and because she's an Indian and Indians don't count as people where they come from---Civil Rights were also in the air---they decide she's fair game for some fun. They rape her. But she fights back and makes the Belden boy mad and he beats her head against a rock and kills her.
Spoilers from here on out.
There's a witness to the rape and murder. The marshal's and her son. There's evidence. The quick-thinking boy escapes with the rapists' horses, one of which bears a fancy saddle that the marshal recognizes as belonging to his old friend Belden. And there's this. The boy reports that his mother laid open her killer's face with her buggy whip. He's marked as her murderer for life.
This would seem to be a set-up for the marshal to be able to shoot the punk on sight, and he lets people know that's what he wants to do.
It is not what he plans to do.
His plan is to arrest his wife's killer and bring him back to face trial. He wants revenge. He's going to settle for justice, a little easier for him to do since he knows he'll have the killer dead to rights.
When he sees the saddle he knows where he has to go and what man he has to see when he gets there. He arranges for a pair of John Doe warrants and catches the first train to Gun Hill.
The warrants are important.
Morgan doesn't know the killer is his old friend's son. He and Belden haven't seen each other in twenty years and all he knows about his old friend these days is that he has built a big cattle empire way over there in Gun Hill. He's assuming that the killer either works for Belden or he stole a horse from him. Either way his manhunt has to start at Belden's ranch, but also either way the killer is nobody to him except the murderer of his wife. There's no reason for Morgan to doubt himself or to feel guilty if he does shoot the killer on sight except that he's a lawman and the law's the law. Morgan's going to bring him in alive and take what little consolation he can find in knowing the bastard will hang.
We're meant to admire Morgan's restraint and his idealism. This is the American way. Even a United States marshal doesn't take the law into his own hands. But there's a bit too much of having our cake and eating too here. Last Train From Gun Hill would have been a very different sort of movie if there'd been any reason for us to doubt that Rick Belden was the killer or for Matt Morgan to doubt that if he brought Rick back for trial he might get off.
The deck's been stacked. Rick has no good qualities. There are no mitigating circumstances. Matt Morgan is right to want revenge and he deserves it. And we know that no matter what Rick is going to die, so what does it matter if it's at the end of a rope or the end of Morgan's gun?
Morgan goes to Gun Hill, learns who the killer is, sets out to arrest him anyway, captures Rick without much trouble---another reason for us not to care what happens to him. Rick isn't even clever enough to be dangerous---then holes up in the hotel to wait for the last train to leave Gun Hill at nine that night.
Of course, his old friend Belden and his men surround the hotel. Belden demands that Morgan let Rick go and for the last half hour of the movie various members of Belden's gang get killed trying to take on Morgan themselves, making it clear that Morgan is such a formidable man and gunfighter that if he'd decided to do things another way, not only would Rick be dead already, so would all of Belden's gang and probably Belden himself, to boot.
Again the movie's asking us to admire Morgan for not just his courage but for his restraint and his commitment to what's right.
It just doesn't expect us to want more than the commitment out of him.
Finally, the time comes to leave for the station. With a shotgun, helpfully provided by Carolyn Jones, as a fallen woman partially redeemed by Morgan's example, wedged under Rick's chin, Matt sets out. And he just about makes it. Belden's called off his men. He seems resigned to letting Morgan take his son. The train pulls in. But just as Morgan and Rick are about to step onto the platform, Rick's punkier, and stupider, sidekick jumps from the shadows to come to Rick's rescue. He comes out with his gun drawn but he's not quick enough on the trigger. Morgan drops him in the dust. But the sidekick gets off a couple of shots, one of which gets Rick right in the gut.
Rick dies bloody. His father, enraged, calls out Morgan, who is about to just get on the train alone and go home. They square off. Belden draws first. Matt draws faster. Belden joins his son dead on the train platform.
A well-made, tautly paced, moderately exciting but fairly standard Western. It's a little less typical in that it doesn't encourage us to stand up and cheer when the bad guys get theirs, and its gunfights aren't staged for maximum entertainment value, they're quick and violent and grim. But it's not as complex as the Jimmy Stewart-Anthony Mann Westerns the filmmakers probably had on their minds when they made it, and in fact it only rises above what was being done on the best of the TV Westerns of the time because it stars Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn. They're just too compelling.
In the end though it's another Revenge Fantasy, only we get to cheer the hero's good intentions---and vicariously congratulate ourselves on our good intentions---more than we are encouraged to cheer to final retribution.
Revenge fantasies are the staple of American macho pop art. From movies to television to comic books to video games, for decades and decades Americans, American young men mostly, have been raised on one simple story. The bad guys invade, they do the hero wrong, the hero takes bloody revenge. Virtue, such as it's there, is reactive---good is what opposes evil, period---and narcissistic. The hero may have a job that makes him the objective champion of others---superhero, cop, private detective, soldier---so that he would at first appear to be acting disinterestedly as an agent for justice. But sooner rather than later the story always gives him a reason to make it personal.
Last Train to Gun Hill is admirable in that it tries, for a while, to have the hero ignore the personal and act disinterestedly, and in the end he doesn't become the direct agent of vengeance. The bad guys die by their own hands. Rick's stupid sidekick kills him and gets himself killed in the process by being stupid on his own accord. And Craig Belden essentially commits suicide by drawing on a man he knows is far faster and more deadly than himself. But the effect is almost the same as it would have been if Morgan had completely taken things into his own hands. The bad guys die to slake our thirst for revenge. When it's all over, Morgan hasn't succeeded in what he set out to do. He's gotten his revenge despite himself and the movie ends without letting us know if he feels bad about that. He boards the train with a look of grim resignation and that's the last we see of him. We're left to be satisfied with knowing that at least he tried. He wanted to do the right thing. His intentions were what counts.
And this is the point where this post stops being a movie review and starts being about torture, war, and John McCain.
This habit Americans have of being content with our good intentions is one of our greatest character flaws as a people.
I won't get into our habit of thinking that in any confrontation we are the good guys---a vain and close to insane assumption by a people whose nation was founded on slavery and a centuries-long attempt at genocide.
But even when we are the good guys it shouldn't be enough that we intend to act as good guys should act.
Here we are, though, a generation after Vietnam, forty years after the murder of Martin Luther King, assuming that we are always the good guys and that as the good guys we're allowed to do whatever we want to do, as long as our intentions are good.
If we go to war, it's because we were forced to. If we kill women and children when we go to war, it's because, well, war's hell, isn't it, and remember we didn't want to go to war, the other side made us. If we torture prisoners---well, we don't. We don't torture anybody. We may have to do some things that are kind of like torture, but we don't want to and we sure don't enjoy it and when we finally resort to it, it's only because we have no choice, the bad guys have forced us into it.
Our good intentions in every case are proof of our goodness and other people should recognize that and admire us for it.
The Maverick and Commander hates war. How do we know that? He tells us so himself and everybody knows that St John McCain never lies and if he ever did it certainly wouldn't be to make himself look good and get himself elected President. He hates war, so never mind that he has no intention of ending this one and no plan to avoid getting us into any future ones and in fact is offering a foreign policy plan that practically calls for war at the drop of a hat.
The Maverick and Commander is against torture. We know that because he was tortured himself and nobody in the history of the world has ever done to someone else the same evil that was done to them and St John McCain would never be the first. He hates torture. Can't you see how painful it was for him to have voted to allow the Bush Leaguers to continue to torture prisoners? It's his intentions and his feelings that matter. What he's forced to do by the bad guys cannot be held in judgment against him.
The Maverick and Commander is a hypocrite. That should be apparent to anyone with a trace of a conscience. But it's not apparent to a great many Americans and a large contingent of the National Press Corps because they are hypocrites in exactly the same way.
It's our good intentions that matter. The Maverick and Commander has good intentions. He hates war. He's against torture. We are glad to make a hero of him for that.
As long as we get to see the bad guys dead in the dust in the end.