Note: This film contains a disturbing plot development, of which we were unaware when we chose it for the Rock Hudson Blogathon. We’ll focus on the actors and characters, not the story.
On the face of it, The Last Sunset (1961) appears to be a Run-Of-The-Mill western, and in some ways, it is.
The story centres on a cattle drive from Mexico to Texas. There are many dangers en route – quelle surprise! – but the greatest threat lies with the individuals involved.
The cattle are owned by an aging Virginian (Joseph Cotten), a veteran of the American Civil War. Cotten is a magnanimous ranch owner; he’s generous and charming, given to both liquor and flowery language.
His wife (Dorothy Malone) is a beautiful, tough woman who makes the best of a hard life. It’s not surprising she gains the affections of both Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson, two men on the cattle drive who have Unfinished Business with each other.
Turns out Douglas has a lot of unfinished business in life. He and Malone were once sweethearts, and Douglas claims he’s come to Mexico to rekindle the romance. Malone contends he’s using her ranch as a Hideout.
She’s proven right when Hudson arrives, armed with a warrant for Douglas’s arrest. The charge is murder.
Both men arrive at the ranch on the eve of Cotten’s arduous cattle drive. Douglas charms his way into Cotten’s home and gains the affections of his teenaged daughter (Carol Lynley). He then offers his services as security detail on the drive, and even recommends Hudson as trail boss.
This will be a tense journey; above all else, we never lose sight of Hudson’s determination to see Douglas hanged.
Although Rock Hudson has top billing, this is A Kirk Douglas Film. According to TCM, the film was shot while Douglas’s sword-and-sandal epic Spartacus (1960) was in post-production.
“Kirk Douglas and his Bryna Production team went to Mexico to film the offbeat and perverse Western The Last Sunset,” says TCM. “Douglas himself took the complicated bad guy role, while…box-office star Rock Hudson received top billing as the vanilla good guy.”
Even though Douglas has the showier role, this film needs Hudson. He’s a quiet, determined Man Of Honour, and Douglas delights in exploiting these virtues.
You see, Douglas murdered the husband of Hudson’s sister, and Hudson wants Justice. But Douglas ain’t the type to go easy. “That sister of yours was a free drink on the house,” he tells Hudson, “and nobody went home thirsty. And I mean nobody.”
Naturally, this angers Hudson, and the pair engage in a fistfight until Malone fires a rifle in the air, because that’s the kind of gal she is.
However, the two men agree on this: Neither will kill the other until they reach the American border.
Douglas and Hudson are surprisingly good adversaries. Because Douglas is the scenery-chewing Star of the Show, we need Hudson to be the sober, moral centre of the film.
He keeps us grounded.
During his career, Rock Hudson appeared in nearly 70 films. When The Last Sunset was released, he was biggest star at Universal Studios, and heralded as one of Hollywood’s top leading men.
Hudson was born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr., in Illinois in 1925. According to Wikipedia, he moved to California after serving in WWII as an aircraft mechanic. He wanted to be an actor, and when he signed on with agent Henry Wilson, his name was changed to the glam “Rock Hudson”.
His first film appearance was in 1948; soon after he signed with Universal. There, says Wikipedia, Hudson “was further coached in acting, singing, dancing, fencing, and horseback riding, and he began to be featured in film magazines…”
Hudson is not one of those Look-At-Me-Act actors. He doesn’t draw attention to himself, but he also doesn’t shirk from a forceful co-star like Douglas.
We won’t recommend The Last Sunset, but if you do see it, you’ll likely appreciate Hudson’s quiet strength against Douglas’s bombastic villainy.
This post is part of the ROCK HUDSON BLOGATHON hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood and In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.
The Last Sunset: starring Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas, Dorothy Malone. Directed by Robert Aldrich. Written by Dalton Trumbo. Universal Pictures, 1961, Colour, 112 mins.