Tom Berenger and Barbara Hershey Ride out to Confront History in Crowdpleasing Western
DIRECTED BY TAB MURPHY/1995
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JUNE 14, 2022/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Despite being an avowed fan of Western movies, 1995’s Last of the Dogmen came to me like a noble spirit lost to the mists of time. I’ve since learned that the film absolutely has its fans, as Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ Blu-ray release seems to have been particularly well received by many. Kino understands what I did not, as it has lovely utilized an absorbing new 4K scan of the original camera negative (color graded and approved by director Tab Murphy and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub) and incorporated both existing audio variations of film- one with narration by Wilfred Brimley, and also the director’s preferred version, sans narration. The latter mix is the one that the Blu-ray defaults to, and rightfully so. If ever there was a film that didn’t need a narrator butting in, this is it.
Written and directed by Tab Murphy, Last of the Dogmen is the kind of movie where not one thing happens that on some level isn’t predictable, yet almost everything feels spot-on. There’s an immediate coziness to film wherein you just know that you’re in good hands. This despite the fact that Murphy had never directed a film prior, and, by choice, hasn’t since. It’s a modern-day story that the filmmaker considers a “Western fantasy”. But then, aren’t most Westerns? If we’re going to be honest about the genre (which we absolutely should be), we have to acknowledge its penchant for revisionism, both positive and negative.
Here, the “fantasy” kicks in when it becomes apparent that a remnant of the Cheyenne seems to have survived the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, and went forever into hiding deep within the treacherous, mountainous Oxbow Quadrangle of Montana. Their descendants carry on in secret, lost to time and devoted to keeping the white man at bay. Consequently, the mountain range is described as “4000 miles of the roughest country God ever put on a map.” Anyone who goes in rarely makes it out. It is the looming Great Unknown, staring down the modern-day small town where everyone lives. For the first third of the film, we never see any Indians. They are more or less discovered by grizzled expert bounty hunter Lewis Gates (Tom Berenger) during a manhunt that goes sideways.
Did he see what he thought he saw in those mountains…? For answers, he seeks out L.D. Sloan, a nearby anthropologist of Native American studies played by Barbara Hershey. Hershey, great as always, is saddled with both the exposition (that Sand Creek Massacre history lesson is all hers to impart, plus other general tribal ways, AND all verbal translations, as well) and the entirety of the film’s feminine sex appeal. (When Berenger is invited to sleep on her couch, she warns him that she tends to walk around naked in the morning. Everyone in and watching this PG-rated movie will have to take her word for it. But we believe her). For their own reasons, both Gates and Sloan simply must learn what’s really out there. Reluctantly and bickering, they venture off together with Gates’ loyal dog, Zip, in tow.
Though Last of the Dogmen comes highly recommended for all audiences, know it is not by any stretch a perfect picture. Although much is made of how deadly these mountains are, the protagonist’s eventual destination looks more like a grassy clearing in a park. When Gates has his first close encounter with “what’s out there”, the sequence plays more confusingly than mysterious. And when Gates screams “NOOOooooooooo!!!” during a particularly harrowing moment, it’s too much. There’s a jarring instance of violence inflicted upon an animal, though sensitive viewers can be assured it’s only momentary, and should hang in there. Finally, it must be said that Zip the red heeler is simply too doggone smart, even by superior Australian Cattle Dog standards. The screenplay has him doing at least one very far-fetched thing, even as he also acts like a dog.
Really though, Last of the Dogmen’s sins are few and minimal. They are entirely forgivable. One realization has been that Last of the Dogmen tells actually a very low-stakes story. But one never feels that that’s the case. Heightened things happen all along the way, punctuating an overall message about the fallout of the United States’ historical atrocities against the native tribes. The titular Dogmen, or Dog Soldiers, are a particularly fierce branch of the Cheyenne warriors devoted to defending their people. They, however, could only do so much. Murphy’s own attested outrage at the Cheyenne’s defeat and marginalization is palpable but not overbearing in the fabric of this absolutely accessible and quite approachable film. Its point is clear all the while.
Berenger, Hershey, and Kurtwood Smith (playing a surly sheriff who both hates Gates but needs his help) are excellent in this under-the-radar (for me, anyway) crowd pleaser. Zip the dog also has a way of stealing the show. KL Studio Classics does quite right by the film, dressing it up with a nice slipcover adorned with handsome newly commissioned art by Vince Evans. Also, there a short full-color booklet with a good essay by Julie Kirgo. Just to remind us that Last of the Dogmen is from the mid-‘90s, there’s the original, particularly dated theatrical trailer and TV spot. Finally, Tab Murphy and producer Joel B. Michaels came in for a new audio commentary track, moderated by filmmaker Douglas Hosdale. It’s interesting to hear about how the crew came straight over from working on Roland Emmerich’s Stargate– and proceeded to be overwhelmed by this seemingly humbler production. This fine release is proof that even in these dog days of physical media, Blu-rays can still have plenty of bite.