The Last Sunset: Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson stars in Robert Aldrich’s lyrical, melodramatic Western that plays like a Greek tragedy

The Last Sunset (1961), directed by Robert Aldrich, written by Dalton Trumbo, and starring Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas and Dorothy Malone in lead roles, is a melodramatic Western that brings a modern tone to the relationship dynamics between the lead protagonists.

Adapted from Howard Rigsby’s Western novel “Sundown at Crazy Horse“, “The Last Sunset (1961)” was intended by star\producer Kirk Douglas to be an ambitious follow-up to his highly successful sword and sandal epic “Spartacus (1960)”. To this end, he even recruited the great writer, Dalton Trumbo (who had also written “Spartacus”) to write the screenplay. But today, hardly anyone remembers this film, despite the fact that the film had two of Hollywood’s hottest stars of the time- Douglas and Rock Hudson- paired together for the only time in their career, alongside such famous Hollywood players like Dorothy Malone and Joseph Cotten. And apart from Trumbo doing the screenwriting, the film also has the respectable veteran, Robert Aldrich, directing and great cinematographer Ernest Laszlo lensing the film. It has to be noted that it was Douglas who rescued Trumbo’s career with “Spartacus”-Trumbo was blacklisted and went to jail as part of the infamous “Hollywood Ten” during the time when HUAC was coming down hard on suspected Hollywood communists; Douglas (along with Otto Preminger with “Exodus(1960)”) broke the blacklist by publicly hiring Trumbo to write the script of that film and naming him as the sole writer in the film’s credits. Douglas’ courage was vindicated when “Spartacus,” despite being a lengthy, troubled production, was a critical and commercial smash, and did not receive any backlash on account of his hiring of Trumbo. Additionally, Trumbo’s skills as a writer went a long way in turning the film into a very intelligent and literate epic. So it was natural that Douglas would choose Trumbo again for this Western opus- that was going to be the ninth film from “Bryna“, Douglas’ production company. Alas! “The Last Sunset” did not duplicate the success of “Spartacus.” Maybe some of the problems lie with Trumbo’s script itself: Trumbo was overworked at the time, and could not give all his attention to this film, hence the script was never perfected. Then there was tension between Aldrich and Douglas, because Douglas forbade Aldrich from working on the scripts of his other films while “Sunset” was in production. Aldrich considers this one of his most difficult productions. Incidentally, he agreed to make this film only because he was desperate for a hit, and making a Western with two of the biggest stars of the time seems to be an easy way of doing it. He should have known better, especially with an imposing personality like Douglas at the helm: Douglas’ interference on “Spartacus” had driven even a monomaniacal auteur like Stanley Kubrick to runaway to the safety & freedom of England for the rest of his life & career. Eventually, “The Last Sunset” was a big flop upon its release, and none of the principals involved with the film ever had anything good (or anything at all) to say about it.

Which is surprising really, because underneath its familiar Western template, the film is quite an unique and odd film that pushes the envelope with regards to characterization, narrative and censorship laws of the time.. The last one may not be new for director Aldrich- he has always been involved in making quite down and dirty pictures that pushed the envelope when it came to the depiction of sex and violence in films. With films like “Vera Cruz”, “Kiss me Deadly” and his most popular film, “The Dirty Dozen”, he has proved this again and again. But what makes “Sunset” different from his other films is that it has an exaggerated, operatic quality to the way the central melodrama plays out, while the narration has a stately, lyrical quality to it- what with a trio of singing Vaqueros acting like a Greek chorus throughout the film. It almost looks and feels like a colorful Douglas Sirk melodrama; a feeling accentuated by the presence of Sirk regulars, Hudson and Malone, in the cast. At its center, the film has a romantic quadrangle very similar to the one in Sirk’s “Written on the Wind.” But “Sunset” also shares similarities with Aldrich’s other films, mainly the 1954 Gary Cooper-Burt Lancaster Western, “Vera Cruz.” It has the same “Gringos in Mexico” narrative driven by two protagonists at its center- one of which is a virtuous all-American hero (Cooper there, Hudson here), while the other is an amoral, dressed-in-all-black anti-hero (it was Lancaster there, here it’s Douglas). “Sunset” also begins very much like “Vera Cruz”: We see two riders crossing the border into Mexico, but unlike that earlier film, where the protagonists are drifters and mercenaries, here an outlaw is being pursued by a Lawman. Sheriff Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson) is on the trail of Brendan O’Malley (Kirk Douglas), an Irishman who killed his brother-in-law during a barroom brawl over Stribling’s sister. Stribling’s compulsion to bring O’Malley to justice leads him across the border into Mexico where he finds O’Malley in the employment of John Breckenridge (Joseph Cotten), a cattleman who needs a good trail boss to help drive his herd to market in the Texas town of “Crazy Horse”. Since Stribling’s warrant is of no use in Mexico, he cannot arrest O’Malley. So he decides to take up the job of the trail boss- this enables him to keep a good eye on O’Malley, and once in Texas, he has the authority to enforce the arrest warrant. But they both know that there isn’t going to be an arrest: they will be shooting it out once they reach “Crazy Horse.” So, with the threat of a big showdown looming at the end of the journey, Stribling and O’Malley join Breckenridge and his family in riding the cattle to Texas.

Additional tension is triggered between the two gunslingers by their mutual attraction to Breckenridge’s wife Belle (Dorothy Malone). And as the journey progresses, the relationships between the principals will be further complicated, as secrets from their past will come tumbling down. The fact is that O’Malley and Belle had a passionate affair years before, and now he wants her back. When she seems cold to his overtures, O’Malley starts taking an interest in Belle’s virginal daughter Missy (Carol Lynley)- who seems to be infatuated with him despite their huge age difference. John Breckenridge is also hiding a shameful secret of his own: he is an ex-Confederate who abandoned his troops during battle- which explains his constant alcoholic state. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes Breckenridge encounters some men from his former regiment in a bar and is publicly humiliated by them as they demand he strip down and reveal a physical detail on his rear that confirms his cowardice. His past as a confederate soldier catches up with him, and ends up killing him in the process- the two heroes are rather too late (or maybe even disinterested) in saving him. Belle, now a widow, decides to seek comfort in the arms of Stribling rather than O’Malley. A crushed O’Malley doubles down on his seduction of Missy, and decides to runaway with her once they reach Texas. After overcoming dust storms, quicksand, hostile natives and treacherous cowboys, Stribling, O’Malley and their group finally manages to reach “Crazy Horse.” Knowing what’s going to come, Belle tries her best to dissuade Stribling from confronting O’Malley; and even though Stribling’s vengeful feelings towards O’Malley has softened considerably since the journey began, he still wants to shot it out with O’Malley. Now comes a twist in the tale, forced by Belle to dissuade O’Malley from fighting Stribling. This twist is not difficult to anticipate- we can see it coming, but it still manages to shock us, not only when the twist happens, but also with the repercussions that it generates.

A twist ending is always a double-edged sword- it manages to surprise the audience alright, but there’s every chance that it could come across as desperate and gimmicky. But gimmicky or not, the twist definitely elevates the film in its final portions, and impart it with the dimensions of a Greek tragedy. Kirk Douglas, who until then was in his usual scenery chewing mode (he even sings a song here as he did in “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea”) portraying this devilish amoral character, suddenly transforms into a very different kind of actor- sensitive, subtle and poetic. Aldrich’s filmmaking too rises to the occasion- the staging, scoring and editing of the final showdown is extraordinary, almost as brilliant as any of those great gun duels in Sergio Leone films. And just like “Vera Cruz” was a big influence on Leone and other Spaghetti-Western directors, so was “The Last Sunset” . The final gun duel between Douglas and Hudson is directly referenced in the climactic gun duel between Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson in Leone’s “Once upon a time in the West.” “The Last Sunset” came out in 1961, at a time when both Hollywood and the ‘Western’ was changing. The simplistic “white hat-black hat” Westerns were slowly becoming passé, and the more morally ambiguous Westerns of Anthony Mann and Delmer Daves that dealt with serious, adult themes were becoming the norm. Even a traditionalist like John Ford was making a dark, psychological Western like “The Searchers.” On its surface, “The Last Sunset” is a typical western with nods to many a classical Western. The film has cattle drives, fist-fights and gunfights, run-ins with the Indians, Mariachi music and the American-Mexican border setting. The stunning Mexican landscapes are captured in all their colorful glory by Ernest Laszlo, and veteran composer, Ernest Gold provides the film with a pulsating score. But it’s in the characterization and plot development where the film veers away from the Western template. The principal characters are pretty much three dimensional, with their own strengths and weaknesses, and hence it makes it difficult for audiences to root for either one of them. O’Malley may have treacherously shot and killed Stribling’s brother-in-law, but he saves Stribling’s life when he gets caught in a quicksand. Malone’s Belle is more than just a damsel in distress waiting to be rescued by either men-she is a pioneer women with agency, who realizes when she’s done with O’Malley and decides to take up with Stribling. Only Carol Lynley, in one of her first major roles, as Malone’s daughter. Melissa (nicknamed Missy) seems to be the stereotype of the young, wide-eyed virgin girl, but as the film progresses Lynley too grows into the role and asserts increasing influence- as a women who speaks her mind- as the film reaches its climax.

With a cattle-drive as its centerpiece and two powerful protagonists at the helm fighting it out for control, i guess Kirk Douglas envisioned the film as his own Red River. But unlike that Howard Hawks directed John Wayne-Montgomery Clift Western classic, there are some problems with this film that stops it from becoming a classic. The pacing is problematic- though lyrical and evocative for most of its running time, the film is bogged down by some unnecessary scenes that seems to be inserted only to supply each star with enough footage to justify their star billing (one of the perils of casting stars, i guess). Rock Hudson, though not bad, struggles with a character that becomes totally irrelevant by the end of the film. He gets the ‘nominal hero’ part who ends up more as a symbol rather than a fully developed character. This means that film becomes a slog towards the end, and if it wasn’t for the ‘twist in the tale’, this would have ended up as a very pedestrian affair. I was really surprised to see Hudson billed above Douglas in the film’s credits – and that too in Douglas’ home production. It’s very hard to believe today that, at that point in time, Hudson was a bigger star than Douglas; because Douglas is the star who lasted longer. The on-set relationship between Hudson and Douglas was described by Douglas as strange- they were not enemies, but they were not friends either. They had very little interaction beyond the sets, and Hudson used to communicate with Douglas only through the studio. I don’t know whether the chemistry between the two stars suffered on account of this, but they just don’t work together as well as Cooper & Lancaster in “Vera Cruz.” Joseph Cotten, a friend of Orson Welles’ and a regular player in many of his great films, is rather lackluster as the drunk ex-confederate, though he does well in his humiliation\death scene.

Robert Aldrich was a veteran of Westerns and masculine action pictures. As expected, he handles the big scenes involving cattle drives, river crossings, sandstorms and gunfights very effectively. But it’s the sweeping, lyrical and evocative quality that film possesses (especially with the film ending on a tragic note) that make this film stand apart in Aldrich’s filmography. These are not qualities that one usually associate with an Aldrich film- he makes very rough films, whether its Westerns, Film Noirs, horror or contemporary action pictures. The film appears to be modelled on classical Greek tragedies: it deftly mixes themes like neurosis, yearnings, regret, hate, revenge and forbidden love around a lengthy odyssey, and ends with the tragic death of a loved one- a flawed warrior hero in the mold of Oedipus- who effectively commits suicide. Hence, more the pity that Aldrich has only bad things to say about this film; perhaps he was too deeply wounded by his working experiences on the picture to objectively assess its merits. All said and done, the film, despite its flaws, remains a fascinating exercise in pushing the boundaries of the Western genre, and remains an interesting viewing experience.

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