The Last Hunt: A Surprisingly Graphic Hollywood-Comes-to-the-Black-Hills Relic

Last Updated by Michael Zimny on

When MGM released The Last Hunt almost sixty years ago, the film was praised by none other than The New York Times for its real-life portrayal of the “necessary killing” of buffalo at Custer State Park.

Reviewer Bowsley Crowther described the riveting CinemaScope scene on-screen as he saw it from an outdoor movie palace in Times Square. “Great shaggy beasts with tiny soft eyes and heads like mahogany lions roam in huge herds across the landscape or charge in thundering, dusty stampedes through the early part of this picture and make a magnificent show. Indeed, they appear so noble in their natural habitat on the western plains that it shocks one to sit in the theatre and see them deliberately slain.”

Times have changed. Almost every element of The Last Hunt from the hamfisted typecasting — Robert Taylor’s amoral vs. Stewart Granger’s egalitarian cowboy — to the “beautiful Indian girl,” played by Debra Paget, are firmly ensconced in their era. But the actual on-film shooting of buffalo may be what gets this one quarantined forever in a faraway time.

Shot on location in the Badlands and Custer State Park, the film had idealist aspirations. Based on a novel by Westerns-writer Milton Lott, the Hunt looks back, if from an easy vantage point, with an appropriately queasy eye at the mass slaughter of buffalo (with real, if officially conservationist-approved buffalo slaughter as a visual prop), drawing parallels between the 1880’s open season on free-roaming herds and military offensives against Native Americans. It's an unsubtle film, shot in unsubtle environs. Robert Taylor’s Charlie reaches the apogee of his evil when he shoots down in cold blood a white buffalo (which looks suspiciously like a brown buffalo that got into a sack of flour), a crime so outlandish it can't not foreshadow his own demise.

lasthuntposter.jpgA poster for the French release of The Last Hunt.

Director Richard Brooks (Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, In Cold Blood) established period ambience with panoramic on-location shots in the Black Hills and Badlands, reportedly scouring the Hills for buffalo bones to reproduce the sun-bleached bone-strewn look of the prairie during the bison slaughter-happy summer of 1883, according to a 1955 article in the Fort Pierre Times.

The buffalo herds of Custer State Park are still thinned today of course, though by other means. But the The Last Hunt was able to drive home its point with images of real buffalo collapsing after crack shots taken Custer State Park riflemen, because in the 1950's an annual cull by that means was official Park policy. 

lasthunt4.png

buffalo.png

lasthunt5.pngThe Last Hunt's stark realism was heightened with real buffalo culls, by Custer State Park riflemen.

As shocking as these scenes may be today — and they can be shocking, in one scene a distraught calf wails as it trots through the carnage — the film has power even when the guns are quiet, if only because of how surprisingly rare it is to encounter a buffalo herd — or scenic shots of any of the wildlife of the West in their natural habitat — on-screen in an era when Hollywood rarely escapes a few major cities. Even at 480p, some of these shots of the buffaloed Black Hills in Cinemascope present a pretty good case for real earth, flesh and fur over CGI super-robots or something, or maybe for just going outside sometimes.

If you’re stuck at a desk, maybe this bison stampede fix will get you through another day. No warnings should be needed for the clip above, the scenes of bad Charlie Gilson picking off giant bulls huddled around a wallow aren’t included here. You might want to bolt your desk to the floor though before you look up the full film on YouTube, if you have a soft place in your heart for American bison. 

In 1956, Bosley Crowther left the Times Square cinema, impressed that what he had seen was “official and necessary killing, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which made ‘The Last Hunt,’ can be forgiven—indeed, it can be acclaimed—for sending its cameras to record this disagreeable incident of modern conservation and integrating it into its fictional film."

He might be lonely with that takeaway if the The Last Hunt was screened in Manhattan (or many other places) today.

subscribe to SDPB email updates banner image Web_Art&Culture_330x85-2.png sdpb food pages link children and education link banner image sdpb news and information link image science and technology posts link sports and leisure link banner image

Related content from SDPB Radio - Art

Dignity Dedicated Near Chamberlain

South Dakota has a new monumental piece of art. A fifty foot tall stainless steel sculpture now stands on the...

NATIVE Act Boosts Tribal Tourism, Art

This week Congress passed an act to spur tribal tourism and increase support for tribal art. The act boosts federal...

Dakota Midday: 'Rivers, Wings, And Sky' And Artistic Partnership

Art and poetry go hand in hand. Artist Nancy Losacker and and poet Norma Wilson show just how to combine the two creative outlets in their joint-exhibit and new...

Eagle Butte Explores Culture And Art At Graffiti Jam

Artists from around the world are shaking their spray paint cans in preparation for the second annual RedCan Graffiti Jam. Hosted by the Cheyenne River Youth Project,...

Books

Dakota Midday: Paul Andrew Hutton

Paul Andrew Hutton joined Dakota Midday from the SD Festival of Books in Brookings. Hutton is a distinguished...

Dakota Midday: Jennifer Richard Jacobson

Jennifer Richard Jacobson is the author of the 2016 Young Readers One Book South Dakota, Andy Shane and Delores...

Dakota Midday: Jerry Nelson, "Dear County Agent Guy"

Jerry Nelson embraced the American farming dream and lived to tell about it. His book, "Dear County Agent Guy" is a...

Dakota Midday Book Club: Denice Turner's "Worthy"

Denice Turner teaches at Black Hills State University. Her book "Worthy" was chosen as a Dakota Midday Book Club...

Music

Dakota Midday: Bob Everhart Tours With Rural Music

Live phone interview with Smithsonian-Folkways recording artist Bob Everhart. He’ll discuss the preservation of...

Glenn Miller Music Still Puts Folks "In The Mood"

Glenn Miller and his big band were at the height of their fame when World War Two began. Two years after...

Original Compositions Celebrate National Parks

A Michigan ensemble is hitting the road with new music to celebrate the anniversary of the National Park System. Two...

Dakota Midday: Hank Harris And Jeff Severson

Hank Harris and Jeff Severson join Dakota Midday for live music and musings on everything from the influence of...

Theater

Dakota Midday: Lisa McNulty On Female Artists

The Off-Broadway Women's Project Theater is the oldest and largest theater company that promotes women artists in...

Dakota Midday: Playwright Bill Russell's Journey to Broadway

Tony nominated Broadway lyricist and playwright Bill Russell was born in Deadwood and raised in Spearfish. His...

DWU Plans $1 Million Theater Project

After dedicating a new sports and wellness center this past month, Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell is now...

DakotaCast Podcast (Episode #12): Rapid City Central Theater Director Justin Speck

The 60th annual State One Act Play Festival took place at O’Gorman High School in Sioux Falls over the weekend. It...