The Last Hunt

The Last Hunt (1956) paired two of M-G-M’s top male stars of the era, Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger, as Civil War veterans who join forces to hunt buffalo for their valuable hides. Sandy McKenzie (Granger) is a former buffalo hunter who gave up that vocation to become a cattle rancher, but when his cattle are killed in a buffalo stampede he reluctantly returns to his old trade. Charlie Gilson (Taylor) is an Indian-hater and an expert shot who relished killing during his time in the war. The hunters hire two more men to help with the buffalo skinning, a one-legged old drunk named Woodfoot (Lloyd Nolan) and a red-headed, part-Indian “half-breed” named Jimmy O’Brien (Russ Tamblyn). After some of their horses are stolen by Sioux, Charlie tracks down the thieves and kills them, bringing a surviving Sioux girl (Debra Paget, replacing an injured Anne Bancroft) and baby boy back to their campsite. Charlie takes the girl as his mistress, but she falls for McKenzie instead. Charlie kills a white buffalo, whose hide has religious significance for the Indians, and an Indian friend of Jimmy’s is killed in a duel with Charlie over the hide. When the girl steals the hide so that Jimmy can place it over his friend’s grave, an increasingly paranoid Charlie is convinced that McKenzie has stolen the hide and is trying to cheat him out of the proceeds. McKenzie and the girl flee, and Woodfoot (armed only with an unloaded gun) is killed trying to stop Charlie. Charlie tracks McKenzie and the girl to a cave and plans to wait them out overnight in a blizzard, but the next morning McKenzie and the girl find him frozen to death, wrapped in a buffalo hide with his gun still clutched in his hand.

Filmmaker Richard Brooks began his Hollywood career in the early 1940s writing B-movies, but by the end of the decade he had gained prominence with screenplay credits on such crime classics as Brute Force and Key Largo; meanwhile, his novel The Brick Foxhole was made into 1947’s Crossfire, which earned five Oscar nominations—including Best Picture. Brooks made his feature directorial debut with the 1950 Cary Grant thriller Crisis, and over the first half of the decade he tackled an eclectic variety of projects, culminating in the 1955 classic Blackboard Jungle, a gritty drama about a crusading teacher and his delinquent students that earned him his first Oscar nomination (for his adaptation of Evan Hunter’s novel). The Last Hunt was his next film, going into production a few months after Jungle’s March 1955 release, and could hardly be more different from the small-scaled black-and-white Jungle: a lavish, Technicolor CinemaScope production, filmed at scenic South Dakota locations.

Despite its traditional western spectacle, with its widescreen buffalo hunts and stampedes, The Last Hunt is ultimately, like many other Brooks films (such as his most famous western, 1966’s The Professionals), a drama about conflicts between men. Robert Taylor’s Charlie Gilson is a fascinating antagonist: a racist who enjoys killing, but also a complicated man who genuinely desires the friendship of McKenzie. He also wants to earn the Sioux girl’s affection (he refuses to force himself on her, a plot point added at the insistence of the Production Code Administration, which did not want the film to feature any implied rape). While Robert Taylor’s reputation as an actor has diminished over the years (Pauline Kael compared him to Tom Cruise, and did not intend it as a compliment to either actor), he skillfully embodies Gilson’s contradictory nature, while Granger has the much easier task, using his effortless charisma to portray the sympathetic McKenzie in a much more low-key performance than his broadly charming work in The Wild North. An overall theme in the film is the futility of violence, and the title The Last Hunt refers not only to the buffalo hunt but also to Gilson’s ill-fated pursuit of McKenzie, resulting in a surprisingly understated climax with Gilson perishing not in blaze of gunfire but freezing in a snowstorm.

The Last Hunt is little remembered today, but it was favorably reviewed at the time of its release, with Taylor’s change-of-pace performance as Charlie and Lloyd Nolan’s colorful work as Woodfoot (The Film Daily called it “an Oscar performance”) garnering much of the attention, as did the buffalo stampede sequence, which was filmed with four cameras and featured 1,000 buffalo, herded by jeeps and wranglers. Variety remarked that “Daniele Amfitheatrof’s music sets up moods appropriately,” while The Film Daily termed the score “a strong production asset.” Amfitheatrof’s music, his only collaboration with Brooks, makes a satisfying companion piece to the scores for Brooks’s more famous westerns, Maurice Jarre’s rousing, Latin-flavored The Professionals, and Alex North’s rambunctious, Oscar-nominated Bite the Bullet.

Daniele Amfitheatrof (1901–1983) was a Russian-born composer who worked at nearly all the Hollywood studios during the 1940s and ’50s. His advanced harmonies and impressionistic writing were well-suited to evoking the spirituality and beauty of Native American cultures (albeit via a Hollywood prism) in both The Last Hunt and Devil’s Doorway, his two M-G-M “Indian” scores presented on disc two of this collection. Amfitheatrof’s score for The Last Hunt features four principal melodies, each of which change their meaning over the course of the story. A noble, western-flavored theme introduces the film and is given a rousing rendition in the first buffalo hunt sequence, but it eventually comes to represent the film’s Indian characters, as Amfitheatrof orchestrates the melody with a classic Hollywood Indian sound.

More pervasive is Amfitheatrof’s main theme, an anguished anthem that is regularly used to represent the buffalo, at times in a way that predicts John Williams’s famous shark theme from Jaws. In certain scenes, the composer gives the motive a deep sound similar to how Bernard Herrmann scored undersea and subterranean creatures in Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (FSMCD Vol. 3, No. 10) and Journey to the Center of the Earth, but as the plot element of the white buffalo hide gains prominence, Amfitheatrof uses the motive to evoke the Sioux’s reverence for the animal. Over the course of the story, the conflict changes from man vs. animal to man vs. man, and the composer even uses the theme to represent Charlie as he becomes the story’s clear antagonist.

J.P. Webster’s 1857 song “Lorena” functions not only as source music—performed by Woodfoot on his accordion—but as a love theme in the underscore. The tune was sung during the American Civil War to remind soldiers of their sweethearts and wives at home, and Amfitheatrof uses the tender melody to characterize Civil War veteran McKenzie’s burgeoning relationship with the Sioux girl. “Lorena” is joined by a similarly romantic theme, associated with McKenzie’s desire for a more peaceful life away from the hunt; this theme is often used for scenes with the baby Sioux boy. A lighthearted motive (based on the romantic theme) is applied to Woodfoot, reinforcing his status as a comic relief character and thus helping make his ultimate sacrifice all the more unexpected. — 

This rare release of a Daniele Amfitheatrof score is given an added bonus in that it is presented in sterling stereo sound from the original 35mm three-track magnetic film scoring masters. Disc 2, tracks 1–14 present the complete score as heard in the film.

Disc Two

1. Main Title
The Last Hunt opens with a panoramic, Norman Rockwell-style painting of a buffalo hunt, and Amfitheatrof’s noble western theme plays over a lengthy title crawl. A foreword explains the history of buffalo hunting in the West, expressing gratitude to “the officials of Custer State Park, the U.S. National Monument at Badlands and to Governor Joe Foss of South Dakota” for their cooperation in allowing the location filming, as well as explaining that the buffalo killed in the film were part of the “annual thinning of the herd.”
As the explanatory crawl gives way to the opening credits, the buffalo theme bursts forth with foreboding octatonic harmony; a biting string/brass pulse eventually enters to propel the melody forward. A racing scalar accompaniment is added to the texture before the melody for “Lorena” is introduced on concertina over light string activity.
2. A Place of My Own
On the grazing lands of Dakota, cattle belonging to rancher Sandy McKenzie (Stewart Granger) are killed by a herd of stampeding buffalo. Charlie Gilson (Robert Taylor) arrives on the scene and proposes that he and McKenzie form a partnership hunting buffalo. Sandy is initially reluctant and the “peaceful life” theme is introduced as he reflects that “all he’s ever wanted is a place of my own.” While he is distracted, a buffalo (presumed dead) pulls itself to its feet, and a menacing version of the buffalo motive sounds as the animal lurches toward Sandy; Charlie spins around and shoots the animal dead, to an exclamatory brass outburst. A conflicted version of the peaceful life theme plays when a grateful Sandy decides to accept Charlie’s proposition.
The scene transitions to the two men heading toward town and Sandy, fed up with killing, changes his mind yet again, to a pure statement of the peaceful life theme. The buffalo theme sneers on muted brass and competes with the romantic melody as Charlie convinces Sandy to stick with him to earn money for a new herd of cattle.
3. Let Her Go
In town, the partners recruit Jimmy (Russ Tamblyn), an Indian half-breed, and Woodfoot (Lloyd Nolan), an old codger; a threatening introduction of brass and strings plays as they set out on their mules and horses. The group reaches the buffalo range to an imitative setting of the western theme. The inebriated Woodfoot spots a rampaging herd of buffalo and steers his wagon after them, with the pulse from the main title returning to form a propulsive foundation for the western theme. A contrastingly comical line—Woodfoot’s motive—is introduced on trumpet as the old man’s steering becomes increasingly perilous, and after a fleeting statement of the buffalo theme the cue transforms into a demented hoedown (built out of the main title’s racing strings) as Charlie unsuccessfully attempts to restrain him. (This cue is slightly edited in the film due to deleted footage.)
A Wet Ending
Three of the score’s principal ideas (the western theme, the buffalo theme and the peaceful life theme) trade off with the hoedown material once Sandy catches up with the herd and leads the buffalo out of Woodfoot’s path; the cue reaches a furious climax as the drunk codger proceeds to crash the wagon into a stream.
4. It’s a Bit Windy Yet
The men set up camp and Charlie resolves to get some meat. An angry setting of the buffalo theme gives way to a brief reprise of the main title’s pulse for a transition to a grazing site, with a creepy reading of the buffalo theme sounding on contrabassoon as Charlie dismounts his horse and sneaks up on the animals.
Sorry, No Buffalo Today
The buffalo theme plays lethargically as one of the animals becomes spooked by Charlie’s presence. Before he can get closer, the herd panics, to a reprise of their frantic material from the main title. Charlie takes cover and fires a few shots in their direction, but they are already too far gone. A playful line for flute and bassoon acknowledges his defeat.
Shame of It
Night falls and the men discuss the future of the buffalo over their campfire. A cautious version of the buffalo theme unfolds as Sandy and Woodfoot attempt to convince a stubborn Charlie that the herds will not last forever if the hunting continues. A forlorn reading of the peaceful life theme sounds when Sandy recalls that in the span of one year all of the buffalo were wiped out of Arkansas.
Just Keep at It
A brief, scornful passage for tremolo strings and muted brass plays as Indians steal the group’s mules.
I’m Going to Get Them Mules
The buffalo theme emerges from agitated writing and is applied to Charlie as he prepares to set out after the thieves. Lamentative strings suggest the western theme for Sandy attempting (and failing) to talk Charlie out of killing the Indians, who do not view stealing horses as a crime; Woodfoot’s rascally motive plays when the old drunk declines to join Charlie, and the buffalo theme is fatefully reprised as Gilson rides off after the natives.
5. Are You the Mother
Charlie tracks down the Indians and kills them; a morose development of the buffalo material (inherited by Charlie) plays when he returns to camp with the stolen mules as well as a hostage Sioux girl (Debra Paget) and the baby boy she is caring for. A delicate mingling of “Lorena” and the peaceful life theme underscores Sandy meeting the young boy. Charlie’s theme returns as he bemoans the child’s presence and instructs Jimmy to ask the girl if the child belongs to her. Before he can do so, Sandy asks her (in her language), to a string reprise of “Lorena.” Once she gives a reluctant nod, sinister muted brass plays for Charlie ordering Sandy to have her wait in his quarters and prepare him a meal. McKenzie ignores him and walks off.
6. That Was Your Ma
The following morning, Sandy finds the little boy perched beside a stream; the peaceful life theme and “Lorena” are tentatively developed as McKenzie wanders over to the child and wonders where the girl is. The melodies are passionately combined when Sandy sees her bathing nearby and he bashfully turns away. After an interruption from Charlie’s material (as he observes the situation from nearby), the girl puts on her clothes and the romantic themes swell together for her and Sandy sharing an awkward but tender moment. The cue concludes with another suggestion of Charlie’s theme as he sneers to himself and rides off.
7. Fast With a Gun
At night, Sandy lays awake—disturbed that Charlie is spending time with the Sioux girl in the privacy of his shack. Meanwhile, Jimmy asks Woodfoot if he knows of anyone as fast with a gun as Charlie, and the old man replies in the negative, to a foreboding statement of the Charlie’s theme. Woodfoot’s motive is quoted on bassoon as he takes a swig of alcohol and the scene transitions to the next day, with Sandy riding out in the open country. Charlie’s theme returns as he sneaks down a hill toward a herd of grazing buffalo.
White One
Racked with guilt, Sandy positions himself near a herd and shoots the animals, until only one remains: a rare white buffalo (known to the Sioux as “Big Medicine”). The octatonic main title rendition of the buffalo theme returns to lend the animal a mythic air and also plays to Sandy’s reverence for the beast. A devastated string sustain and accented brass burst forth when Charlie suddenly shows up and shoots the animal in the head. Sandy’s stunned reaction is acknowledged with a muted brass version of the peaceful life theme; as the hunters stand over the fallen buffalo, the cue designates Sandy and Jimmy with mournful string writing while nagging renditions of the buffalo theme represent a proud, insensitive Charlie.
8. Now You’ll Kill Our Religion
At the encampment, Sandy unloads skinned hides from the wagon. The buffalo theme receives a murky reading when the Sioux girl sees the white buffalo’s skin. A hollow suggestion of “Lorena” sounds on strings as she tells Sandy (in English): “You take away our food. Now you kill our religion.” She walks off and Sandy is joined by Woodfoot, to a reprise of the old man’s comic motive.
Big Medicine
Jimmy’s Sioux friend, Spotted Hand (Ed Lonehill), visits the encampment and takes note of Big Medicine’s white skin, to a seething statement of the buffalo theme. The western theme gets a somber development as Spotted Hand offers to trade his mules for the valuable skin. Nervous material builds under Charlie walking over to one of the mules and attempting to mount it; a playful bassoon rendition of the western theme results when the animal becomes agitated and knocks him to the ground. Charlie subsequently refuses to make the trade and a tense passage incorporates the buffalo and peaceful life themes as Sandy tries to convince him otherwise. Spotted Hand challenges Charlie to a gunfight, with the hunter readily accepting. The western theme’s somber version plays as Spotted Hand asks what Charlie has to gain by killing him, and the villain responds: “Just pure pleasure.”
Just Pure Pleasure, Boy
Charlie and Spotted Hand prepare for their face-off while Woodfoot counts out 30 paces; the score creates a sense of impending doom, incorporating Charlie’s melody into sparse writing for drums and winds. (The nervous, repeated low-end figure in the background is an overlay played by novachord, celli, basses, bassoons and drums.) The villain’s material gives way to the western theme as Spotted Hand says a prayer, and the cue snarls to its conclusion just before the fighters take their places and prepare to fire.
9. Well, I’ll Be Damned
Charlie shoots Spotted Hand and the score responds with swelling brass and panicking strings. Gilson wonders why the Indian wanted the buffalo hide, the western theme playing tragically as Woodfoot explains the skin’s religious value. After Jimmy announces that Spotted Hand is still alive, a comical muted reading of Woodfoot’s motive sounds for the old man teasing Charlie.
The scene transitions to night at the camp where troubled, quivering underscore incorporates Charlie’s theme as Sandy, Jimmy and the Sioux girl tend to Spotted Hand’s wound. An austere version of Woodfoot’s theme alternates with the western theme as the old man continues to tell Charlie of the Indians’ worship for the buffalo (in the finished film, the opening of the second part of this cue, 0:43–2:26, is dialed out). Sandy informs Charlie that Jimmy is taking the mortally wounded Indian to die back on the Sioux reservation, and the score brews with sporadic low-register tension when Charlie refuses to let them take the mules.
Heartbeat Effect
Charlie draws his pistol and orders Jimmy and Spotted Hand to dismount the mules. When Sandy challenges him, he threatens to shoot McKenzie; the skinner responds by holding a knife to the villain’s belly. A heartbeat-like pulse plays through their standoff, building anxiety and counting down Spotted Hand’s final moments until the Sioux falls off his mule, dead.
Charlie Gets the Hat
A passage of nervous fluttering and timpani plays as Jimmy drapes his friend’s corpse over a mule and leads the animal from camp. The buffalo theme sounds when the Sioux girl discreetly passes Jimmy the white hide; Charlie misses this while picking up Spotted Hand’s hat from the ground. The scene transitions to Jimmy giving the Sioux a proper Indian funeral in a large tree, where Spotted Hand is wrapped in the skin of the sacred buffalo. A tragic rendition of the western theme plays on strings as Jimmy recites a Sioux prayer.
10. No Heart for Slaughter
Sandy visits town by himself to sell the buffalo skins. He is consumed with self-loathing for killing buffalo and for leaving the Sioux girl with Charlie. After a drunken brawl in a saloon, he returns to the encampment and resolves to free the girl. Charlie is initially elated to have his partner back but he has become mentally unstable because he can no longer find buffalo to kill. He throws a fit when Sandy informs him that the prized white buffalo skin is missing.
A transition to Sandy riding through a field of buffalo skeletons is scored with unsettling brass developments of the buffalo theme. When the hunter locates a small herd, he cannot bring himself to open fire; the peaceful life theme resurfaces as he sets down his weapon and reclines.
Where’d They Go
At night, while Charlie is sleeping, Sandy leaves camp with the Sioux girl, her boy and Charlie’s horse. The next morning tremolo strings and agitated winds play for Charlie discovering that they are missing. The villain sets out to find them and unnerving trills sound as Jimmy wonders if Charlie would actually kill his friend—Woodfoot reckons so. The scene segues to the three skinners searching the valley on their mules to the accompaniment of suspenseful string dissonance and meandering low brass. While Charlie investigates a nearby cave (one that he and Sandy once used for shelter from hazardous weather), Woodfoot and Jimmy find his missing horse tied to a tree. Jimmy releases the animal and punishing brass underscores Woodfoot scaring it off so that Charlie cannot use it to track down Sandy. The cue ends before Charlie shoots Woodfoot for betraying him.
11. Starving Reservation
Woodfoot’s motive makes a brief appearance as Jimmy retrieves the old man’s concertina and places it beside his corpse. Desolate brass and strings mark Sandy and the Sioux girl arriving at an Indian reservation, where they are greeted by a white representative. A grim pentatonic melody plays as Sandy is informed that the Indians are starving and that the Army has failed to show up with a promised shipment of food.
I Go With You
Sandy decides to ride to town for the Sioux and retrieve supplies from the Army. A yearning rendition of “Lorena” plays as the Sioux girl offers to accompany him. Sandy warns her of the danger Charlie poses, but she is committed to him. They ride off toward town to a stern reprisal of the Indian material.
12. Pretty Lookin’ Too
In town, Jimmy is reunited with Sandy and the girl; they leave for the reservation with cattle and supplies. While Charlie is collecting money for skins, he learns that Sandy was recently in town and has only just left. Bitter brass and a fleeting statement of the peaceful life theme denote his reaction before the scene transitions to Sandy, Jimmy and the girl braving treacherous, snowy weather to reach the reservation. The score sustains a jittery, ominous tone as they take refuge inside a cave, with Charlie arriving on horseback outside.
I’m Waiting
Charlie shouts up to Sandy from the foot of a hill that leads to the cave, demanding that he show himself. Suspenseful, taunting material for muted brass and string harmonics plays as Charlie threatens to kill the mules and cattle meant for the Indian reservation. Sandy bargains with the villain and manages to secure Jimmy’s release; Charlie insists that the girl remain, however, and a straining version of “Lorena” sounds as Sandy holds her close. The peaceful life theme underscores Jimmy’s farewell to Sandy; the boy runs down the hill and sets off for the reservation with the cattle, as unraveling chromatic suspense gives way to a deformed brass version of the romantic material. Sinister writing closes the cue as Charlie tells Sandy to wait until morning for their showdown—Charlie does not trust him in the dark.
13. It’s Time We Gave Them Something
As the weather becomes increasingly frigid, Charlie struggles to maintain his sanity; a stray buffalo arrives on the scene and Charlie kills and skins it in an attempt to keep warm, muttering to himself all the while.
The majority of “It’s Time We Gave Them Something” does not appear in the film (possibly due to deleted or reedited footage). The cue’s opening is heard as morning arrives, with Sandy preparing to face Charlie. In the film the score jumps ahead (skipping the interaction between “Lorena” and the peaceful life theme, as well as a hint of Charlie’s theme) to arrive at 1:16 for Sandy kissing the girl goodbye and exiting the cave. Quietly horrific string utterances and martial percussion follow Sandy down the hill toward his opponent.
14. Frozen to Death and End Title
Sandy reaches Charlie and flinches upon seeing him, a gruesome low brass hint of Charlie’s theme marking the revelation of his frozen corpse, sitting up with buffalo skin draped over him, his pistol pathetically drawn. Chilly strings provide a backdrop for Charlie’s theme as Sandy examines the corpse and the Sioux girl escorts his horse down to him. Doomed brass underscores Sandy’s declaration, “Frozen to death.” As he and the girl ride off together, the buffalo theme builds to a contrastingly optimistic conclusion.
End Cast
“Lorena” returns for the end credits, which play out over the painting from the film’s opening sequence.

Disc Three

Bonus tracks for The Last Hunt are found at the end of disc three:

Alternate Score

25. Main Title (original version with alternate ending)
This earlier rendition of the main title features a more subdued presentation of the opening western theme; the closing arrangement of “Lorena” plays on woodwinds instead of accordion.
26. That Was Your Ma (original version)
The opening orchestration of this cue emphasizes solo fiddle rather than clarinet (see disc 2, track 6). The brass appearance of Charlie’s theme halfway through is also more forceful.
27. Well, I’ll Be Damned (original version)
The closing bars of this cue feature a suspenseful version of the peaceful life theme for Sandy’s standoff with Charlie instead of the threatening percussion of the rewritten music (disc 2, track 9).
Charlie Gets the Hat
The original version of Spotted Hand’s funeral (disc 2, track 9) is scored with a different rendition of the western theme to close the cue: brass (not violins) set contrapuntally over the buffalo theme. (The first half of the cue is the same recording in both versions.)
28. Where’d They Go (original version)
The skinners’ search for Sandy (disc 2, track 10) features unused counterlines based on Charlie’s theme and the peaceful life theme. An urgent rendition of Woodfoot’s theme was intended to underscore Jimmy and the old man freeing Sandy’s horse.
29. I Gotta Kill Sandy
This unused cue features gloomy readings of the buffalo theme and Woodfoot’s theme amid suspenseful string writing. Accordion takes up “Lorena,” but dissonant strings corrupt the tune before the sinister buffalo theme returns to close the cue. It is unknown what scene this was meant to accompany, although the cue title likely references dialogue by Charlie.

Source Music

A great deal of source music was recorded for The Last Hunt, both for saloon sequences and for Woodfoot, who often sings and plays a concertina while sitting around the campfire. The bulk of this material consists of familiar tunes such as “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Sweet Betsy From Pike” and “Lorena”; due to their repetitive nature and limited space available on this box set, most of these source cues are not presented here.

Three source pieces not used in the finished film, however, are included at the end of disc three, all sung by Bill Lee: Disc 3, track 30 is the period song “Lorena” (utilized by Amfitheatrof as the score’s love theme), track 31 is “Buffalo Skinners” (evoking the buffalo hunters’ trade) and track 32 is a medley of three Native American chants: “He Lies Over There,” “I Fear Not” and “Song to Secure Buffalo in Time of Famine.” —