Written and Directed by Tab Murphy (Directorial Debut)
September 8, 1995
A bounty hunter tracking escaped fugitives in the discovers that a group of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers are living in secret in the Montana wilderness and his search for them brings them into conflict with the modern world.
Before I begin, I should probably mention what Dog Men are. Dog Men (Cheyenne: Hotamétaneo’o) are one of six Cheyenne military societies that eventually grew into a separate, militaristic band that was prominent in the Cheyenne resistance to the westward expansion of the United States. In this film, the group encountered are the descendants of a group that escaped the Sand Creek massacre of 1864.
One thing I always enjoy is when movies add on to real history. It can create fun “what ifs” with history. Here it is a group of Cheyenne warriors who were believed to have perished in the winter actually survived and hid in the Oxbow for nearly a century.
Tom Berenger plays the bounty hunter Lewis Gates. He is a widow still nursing the pain of the death of his wife who I cannot recall ever being named. He appears to have withdrawn as much as he possibly can from the world. Berenger is a great actor that just does not get the love he deserves. This is a believable and unpretentious performance. Growing up where I did, I knew plenty of outdoors types that were just like him.
The amazing Kurtwood Smith plays Sheriff Deegan, Lewis’s (former) father-in-law. His daughter (I do not believe ever named by daddy here) was killed while out with Gates and he has never forgiven him. Smith is only 6 or so years older than Berenger in real life so was this a cradle robbing situation? They did not try to make Smith look older or anything though the dead daughter’s age is not hinted at.
Barbara Hershey plays Prof. Lillian Sloan. She is a woman that Gates approaches after his initial encounter. While skeptical, she willingly follows a total stranger alone for several days into the middle of nowhere.
The plot of Last of the Dogmen could be called an Indiana Jones style Western. Lewis encountered something strange when he was tracking down a few criminals and is now trying to figure out what is going on. His search leading to Barbara Hershey’s character who thinks he is either yanking her chain or being fooled by somebody yet her curiosity is still piqued.
Lewis is quite passionate in his search. He compiles a list of people who have disappeared in the area over the years and eventually stumbles across the story of a “wild child” discovered by a railroad worker (Parley Baer). It is a cool moment that really builds excitement for the eventual payoff.
The big payoff of the film is when Lewis and Lilian find the tribe. That is the “Wow!” moment. And that is also when the movie ceases to be a Western Indiana Jones type story and becomes something less. What should have been the end of the film or very close to the end of the film occurs at roughly the midpoint and we are left with about 45 minutes or so of time to fill.
From there Last of the Dogmen becomes a completely different film. One of the members of the tribe gets sick and Gates knows that penicillin will cure them so he takes his horse and rides into town and robs a pharmacy and spectacularly escapes. From there Deegan comes looking for him to arrest his ass and finally get revenge for the death of his daughter. He gathers a posse and follows Lewis into the Oxbow. So why did he need Lewis to go after the convicts? Why did he not ignore his deputy and get one of the dudes he has with him when pursuing Lewis?
Gone is the mystery aspect which is replaced by an explosion filled action-adventure finale. So Lewis must leave the tribe and use some old dynamite from one of the many people the tribe has come across (and presumably killed) over the years to blow up an entrance behind a waterfall to protect the tribe. What had been a slow burn mystery becomes bullets and explosions and a bit cliché. It is like there are two different films here.
I think they should have extended out the search for the tribe in some way. And I think it would have been more believable if people had thought that Lilian was captured/kidnapped by Lewis and that’s why Deegan came looking for him. The whole sick tribe member felt a little unnecessary.
And this is all done with a Wilford Brimley voiceover. He serves as a narrator for the film even though the actor does not actually appear anywhere as a character in the movie. His narrator character does not get a name beyond “narrator.” There are supposedly two alternate cuts out there. One lacks narration which I think would be weaker without additional scenes and I do not know if it has that. The other gets narration by Kurtwood Smith as Deegan. Honestly Berenger as Gates would have made the most sense. What the whole issue was I am not sure. The change in tone and the whole narrator thing irritates me and harms what otherwise could have been an amazing film.
Yet I still find enough to like in this film to enjoy it more than I do not enjoy it. Tom Berenger is the ideal rugged western individualist. Barbara Hershey is perfectly cast as a person who perhaps is missing something in her life. And Kurtwood Smith is the jerky father-in-law. The man made a career out of it for several seasons so I do not think you can really argue that one.
Last of the Dogmen is beautifully photographed. The camera loves the scenery, and the scenery loves the camera. It does not look like they use any tricks to make the forest like any denser than it is. It is mostly a very good character story about a man trying to solve a mystery. The weaker part of that is the conflict between Lewis and Deegan. Deegan is still bitter over the death of his daughter, but it does not feel too serious at times. More like he is irritated.
The acting is all around good. We have a strong three-member main cast who have always known what they are doing in front of the camera. They give us believable characters. The town environment that they have here is authentic. This is an extremely small community where it is implied everybody knows everybody.
Last of the Dogmen in the end is a good film with a bad ending. In the end I give it a hesitant if you want. The serious movie fan can probably skip it, but a Western fan will find it enjoyable.