As further confirmation that Delmer Daves was the western genre’s great moralist director, we have this fascinating and pointed psychological western to point to. The Last Wagon, along with others from Daves in this era, like Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma, make distinctive reference points to Biblical allegories….each film examining the west as a sort of proving grounds for faith, justice, and moral uprightness. Daves positions his characters in situations that cause them to question their sense of right and wrong. These temptations and conundrums are positioned against men of good mental and spiritual fortitude in Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma. But in The Last Wagon, our protagonist is of questionable moral standards to begin with and even we the audience aren’t quite sure what to make of our own judgements of him.
Daves co-scripted the film and helped create a fiendishly clever psychological mess of a plot. Comanche Todd (Richard Widmark), named so because he was raised mostly by Comanches, has been captured by Sheriff Harper as Todd was wanted for the murder of Harper’s three brothers. After taking him captive, Harper and Todd meet up with a wagon train, and Harper ties Todd to a wagon wheel to keep him captive. Tempers flare when some of the wagon train members begin to show care for Todd, while Harper wants none of that. During a fit of confusion, Todd manages to kill Harper, leaving the wagon train to deal with Todd themselves. A group of younger individuals from the train decide to go skinny dipping during the night, Jenny (Felicia Farr) and her brother Billy (Tommy Rettig), Jolie (who’s half Native American – played by Susan Kohner) and her racist step-sister Valinda (Stephanie Griffin), and two other young men named Ridge (Nick Adams) and Clint (Ray Stricklyn). When they all arrive back at the wagon train in the early morning, they find everyone has been slaughtered by Apaches……except Todd. This positions all six of the young survivors into a situation whereby their only hope of survival is to let the seemingly “evil” Todd lead them across the dangerous territory to safety…….if they can trust him.
I’m not sure Daves could have found a more perfect actor to play Comanche Todd than Richard Widmark. Widmark was of course typecast a bit during his days as morally corrupt and slimy, often playing bad guys or good guys gone bad in numerous film noirs and westerns throughout his career. Widmark has a fascinating ability, though, to rise above this sort of typecasting through his impressive range. Here he’s believably tough, rugged, fatherly, caring, daring, vengeful and just about any other adjective you could use to describe his character. What works so well is that we are never quite sure of what he’s capable of. His past exploits, as assumed by most of the 6 survivors, are seen in different lights. Jenny finds a rugged handsomeness and danger in him that she is attracted to, and at one point even grimacing with pleasure as Todd digs a knife into an Apache’s chest. Billy finds Todd to be a father figure, learning from Todd’s teaching and mentoring while he is leading them through the dessert. Valinda despises Todd completely, not trusting him one bit and fearing for her safety, despite the fact that he saves her life after she’s bitten by a rattler. Ridge and Clint can’t quite make up their minds most of the time, as their own fears of inadequacy to care for the group force them to follow Todd’s direction even though they don’t always like it. Jolie finds a quiet camaraderie in Todd, as his sympathies and understanding of racism she appreciates. Widmark is able to reflect back all of these qualities that are needed in convincing fashion, and it’s one of his best and most confident performances.
Many things are done to near perfection in this film: Wilfred Cline’s terrific Scope cinematography, the excellent action sequences (love those gunpowder explosions), the terrific supporting roles (especially Felicia Farr as the sexually yearning Jenny….in fact Farr added fine performances to Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma as well), the self-aware script that doesn’t shy away from topics of racism, fornication and spirituality. True though the plot is the sort of thing that could be construed as cliché, the film elevates beyond the usual through the continued Biblical reference points. On more than one occasion, there’s mention of preaching and the Bible, with even mention of Todd’s birth-father being a circuit preacher. This allows for an appropriation to Todd as wandering prophet or savior to this group of 6 people. He preaches, prophesies, and enacts lessons of survival and safety and protection to his newfound family or “congregation” if you will. It’s almost like he’s Moses leading the Israelites through the desert. At the end of the film, the question of law versus justice comes into play, as Daves’s script allows for a very pointed examination of judgement….both man’s and God’s. Our understanding of Comanche Todd and everything we think he’s done gets turned upside down in the finale, with God smiling down on him in reprieve based upon his lifesaving exploits, which although on the surface seems wishy-washy, is actually not dissimilar to the miraculous rain shower at the end of 3:10 to Yuma based on Van Heflin’s faithful service, or even Glenn Ford’s redemption and survival at the end of Jubal by refraining from adultery. These endings are all remarkably consistent and in line with Daves’s unique brand of psychological western.