Release Date(s)1959 (January 7, 2022)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B-
[Editor’s Note: This is a REGION-FREE Blu-ray release.]
Director John Sturges’ 1959 film Last Train from Gun Hill may not be as well-known today as his more famous Westerns Gunfight at the O.K. Corral or The Magnificent Seven, but it’s still an interesting example of the way that Westerns had changed during the 1950s to appeal to adult audiences. James Poe wrote the script based on a story by Les Crutchfield, and that story is simplicity itself: when two drunken cowboys rape and murder the Indian wife of Marshal Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas), he goes on a single-minded quest to track down the killers. That quest takes him to a town which is owned by his old friend Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn), and the two find themselves on opposite sides with the need to avenge one family member clashing with the urge to protect a different one. There’s actually more than a bit of 3:10 to Yuma in the structure of the narrative, with the difference being the personal stakes which are involved.
The story is straightforward, and so is the direction by Sturges. The film runs a lean 93 minutes with little wasted screen time and minimal directorial flourishes. Sturges knew when to get out of the way of a script, and he did so here. Douglas is at his best, and so is Anthony Quinn. The rest of the supporting cast is also good, with Earl Holliman and Brian G. Hutton doing credible work as the cowboys in question. But it is Carolyn Jones who really stands out as Quinn’s former lover who has suffered at his hands. There are some strong thematic elements at play in Last Train from Gun Hill including interracial marriage, rape, and the abuse of women. As a product of the 1950s, those themes aren’t always handled with particular sensitivity, but it was still a step in the right direction from the sanitized version of the west presented in previous decades.
In the end, Last Train from Gun Hill is really about the ways that love can cloud people’s judgment. The desire to avenge a loved one and the need to protect another loved one are an irresistible force meeting an immovable object that will tear a friendship apart, and leave a trail of bodies in its wake. Fortunately, Sturges resisted the temptation to do anything that would distract from that basic idea, and Last Train from Gun Hill is a fine example of the lost art of efficiency in storytelling.
Last Train from Gun Hill was shot in 35 mm VistaVision by cinematographer Charles Lang and was framed at 1.85:1 for its original theatrical release. VistaVision was a format where the film ran horizontally at 8 perforations per frame, so the negative area was much larger than that of standard 35 mm film. For this restoration, Paramount scanned the original negative at 6K resolution and the final transfer is framed at 1.78:1. They previously included it on their Paramount Presents Blu-ray release, and now the Australian company Imprint utilizes the same master for their Region-Free Blu-ray release. The resulting image is immaculately clean with an abundance of fine detail. The grain from the large format negative is fine enough that it is barely noticeable even in projection, but it hasn’t been scrubbed away with digital tools. The color balance is excellent with strong contrast and very deep blacks, though a few of the nighttime shots near the end have flatter contrast. Some viewers have reported seeing severe motion artifacts like ghosting in fast moving images, but that may be at least partly due to hardware configurations as it doesn’t happen with every combination of player and display. Viewed via a JVC RS2000 fed by an Oppo UDP-205, there wasn’t any ghosting. That minor potential issue aside, this is a fantastic transfer which cries for a 4K Ultra HD release, though the economics of that may not make sense for Paramount just yet.
Audio is available in English 2.0 mono LPCM, which was English 2.0 mono Dolby TrueHD on the Paramount Presents release, and with subtitles in English SDH. Only the format has changed, there is no difference aurally. Everything sounds clear with clean dialogue, and there's even a bit of dynamic punch to the gunfire. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score isn’t as memorable as some of his other works, but it sounds fine here. There's a strange moment near the end where Anthony Quinn’s voice sounds like it was dubbed by a different actor, but that’s always been there so it wasn’t something that had to be replaced during the restoration.
Special features include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Stephen Prince
- Filmmaker Focus: Leonard Maltin on Last Train from Gun Hill (HD – 7:22)
- Trailer (SD – 2:36)
In the new audio commentary with the late author and film historian Stephen Prince (whom this disc is dedicated to), he goes into detail about the VistaVision format, detailing much of its use within the film. He discusses the history of the production, the score, racial politics in the film, and Hollywood’s preventative filmmaking style to avoid censorship. He comments on the story as it plays out and analyzes many facets of it. He also speaks in detail about members of the cast and crew, particularly John Sturges, Kirk Douglas, and Anthony Quinn. In truth, this commentary is a major step up from the Paramount Presents release, which only includes the Filmmaker Focus featurette with Leonard Martin. It’s unavoidably shallow as it runs less than eight minutes, but he does manage to squeeze some interesting information into that time frame. He gives a brief overview of Sturges’ career starting with his time as an editor before he moved into directing, and points out that Sturges did not really have any particularly recognizable style, but instead tended to do the best that he could to serve the scripts he was offered. Maltin also talks about the cast and how Douglas and Quinn did not get along on this production.
Last Train from Gun Hill doesn’t have the name recognition of many other films directed by John Sturges, but it’s a solid Western that’s worth seeking out. Paramount’s restoration is fantastic and Imprint’s Blu-ray release builds up upon the previous Paramount Presents release by adding a very fine historic commentary filled with detail. It’s a great way to experience the film, even if one can’t help but wish for a 4K Ultra HD version instead.
- Stephen Bjork