Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

Permit me to indulge in one last fantasy of trading found films for lost ones: in order to see the missing second half of The Last Outlaw, I would happily trade The Indian Post entire, and maybe even a reel or two of Bucking Broadway. For the single remaining reel of The Last Outlaw, as damaged and faded as the copy I saw is, represents Jack Ford’s best extant pre-1920s work; it’s certainly the first to show him emerging as a Serious Artist.

No doubt this owes much to being the first surviving screen story that Ford co-wrote himself, a customarily Fordian plot that would in 1936 be remade into a feature, bearing a story credit for Ford and starring Harry Carey himself. But the tragedy of a long-lost former life is here embodied by Edgar “King Fisher” Jones as Bud Coburn, an outlaw of the old West just recently released from prison.

Bud returns to civilization and is confused by bustling automobiles, and civilian bustle. He melancholically daydreams of times past (notably, he sits by a blackened theatre entrance over which a superimposition of gun toting cowboys and dance hall girls appears), and goes about town looking for his daughter, whom he finds is the object of a local bootlegger’s affections.

The story does not fully take shape before the reel ends, but it’s clear that Ford was already interested in taking apart western legends and reducing them to tragic figures. The seeds of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are already sprouting here.

The film’s pathos largely comes simply from Bud making gestures and reactions that would be dangerous feats of badassery in his own time, but in his new context are merely the actions of a confused and antiquated own man. In one scene, a passing cyclist pretends to hold up Bud with his finger, and Bud draws his pistol instinctively. The cyclist does not even react, but calmly mounts his bike and rides away. Bud impotently holsters his weapon.

Equally sad is a moment when Bud passes a corner and sees a sheriff who had once been his old nemesis. He pokes his head around the corner, draws his pistol and aims it, before seeing his daughter walk up to the sheriff, have a brief, friendly exchange, and leave. Bud sits and looks pathetically at the pistol in his hand, resting in a composition that partitions the tired, hidden-away gunslinger from a society that no longer considers him a threat.

This is not to say that The Last Outlaw is anything like a major work; for every brilliant camera position there are many more that are merely functional, no doubt on account of the speed of its production (Ford made it in a year that saw him directing seven shorts and nine features). But it does mark a clear development in Ford’s artistic interests, as he gives his hero a compelling and complex inner life and consistently applies his thematic concerns throughout the picture.

Though there’s no getting around its incompletion, there is a poetry to how The Last Outlaw’s reel runs out that perfectly marks its place in Ford's filmography: Bud asks his daughter (who does not know him) if she knows where his father is. When she provides a not-entirely-accurate description of his crimes, he flies into a rage, throws an object in his hands against the bar, and yells “Don’t you know the difference between a horse and a cattle thief?”

That symbolic act of throwing an object would become a staple in Ford’s use of gestures, and Bud’s unintended revealing of his true self, an unflattering and unappealing convict who certainly doesn’t seem a welcoming father figure, is the act of a classic Ford hero, struggling to escape his history and find acceptance into a peaceful home. We’ve already seen one permutation of it in Straight Shooting, but this time his psyche’s boots have sunk far deeper into the mud.


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