The Frontier Matures
When it comes to Anthony Mann's westerns most of his best known are those which starred James Stewart but Mann also made westerns with other actors such as "The Last Frontier" starring Victor Mature. And "The Last Frontier" feels surprisingly different to the Mann & Stewart collaborations despite featuring Mann's eye for solid action. It feels different because in many ways it is not so much a movie about what happens but the character of woodsman Jed Cooper as he tries to understand what being civilized mean and then becoming it. That may sound a bit strange considering we're talking a Cavalry western but that is the underlying story to "The Last Frontier".
After being forced of the land by Indian Chief Red Cloud (Manuel Dondé), woodsmen Jed (Victor Mature - Chief Crazy Horse), Gus (James Whitmore) and Mungo (Pat Hogan) head down to Fort Shallon where Captain Glenn Riordan (Guy Madison) offers them work as Scouts whilst making a friend of Jed who is intrigued to find out how he can wear a blue coat like the other soldiers. But the arrival of Col. Frank Marston (Robert Preston) changes things as Marston having suffered the humiliation of leading men to their death is looking for glory and takes command of the Fort with a plan of using every man to attack Red Cloud despite objections from Riordan and Jed who has fallen for Marston's wife Corrina (Anne Bancroft - The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone).
Now you can take "The Last Frontier" on face value and if you do then what you get is an entertaining but somewhat obvious western. We have the crazed Col. Frank Marston taking command of Fort Shallon, hell bent on seeking glory and willing to take every soldier out of the Fort to fight Indian Chief Red-Cloud despite it being an insane idea. Running alongside this is woodman Jed becoming a scout for the Fort and falling in love with Marston's wife and so has to decide whether to try and kill Marston in order to win over his wife. All of which is interweaved with various moments of action before you get the big climax and it is all entertaining but not much different to the sort of action you can watch in dozens of 50s westerns.
But the "The Last Frontier" has another side and that is Jed initially wanting to be allowed to wear the blue coat but is told that he is not civilized enough to obey the rules which come with it. This leads to him meeting and falling for Corrina Marston and in his simplistic way of thinking sees that winning her would be a step towards being civilized. But then he questions whether the men in the blue coats are really civilized when he encounters the evilness of Col. Frank Marston. It is the layer of exploration as Jed forms this idea of what being civilized means and what it means to him makes "The Last Frontier" a far more interesting movie, not necessary a deep movie but one which is more than just action.
The reason why "The Last Frontier" ends up interesting is really because of one thing, the perfect casting of Victor Mature. Matures delivers every ounce the woodsman, the sheer brutality of the man who sees life in simple ways but wants to change. You can feel his hurt when Corrina rejects him, almost afraid of his bear like behaviour and you can also see his confusion when he associates men in blue coats as civilized yet sees that Col. Marston is anything but. The other performances from Robert Preston, Guy Madison, James Whitmore and Anne Bancroft are solid but it is Mature's brooding performances which keeps you entertained.
What this all boils down to is that "The Last Frontier" does work as a 50s cavalry western but doesn't really stand out from all the others with action and characters which feel very familiar. But the exploration of Jed trying to understand and become civilized adds that little extra to make it more interesting, not necessary deep but at least more than just a series of western cliches.