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“John Wick with spurs” – A look at Walter Hill’s Unmade The Last Gun

There’s something intoxicatingly elusive about the unmade projects of a great filmmaker – Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, Alfred Hitchcock’s Kaleidoscope, Orson Welles’ too-many-to-mention, and so on. Like all film buffs I have my own if-only-they’d-made-that wish list, with Walter Hill’s The Last Gun being up the top.

I’ve been a fan of Hill since I was twelve, when I discovered the joys of his 1984 cult favourite Streets of Fire (via the gateway drug of the video clip for Dan Hartman’s soundtrack single, “I Can Dream About You”). I was such an enthusiast of Hill’s “rock’n’roll fable” that I made my brothers re-enact the climactic Michael Pare-Willem Dafoe hammer duel in one of the super 8 epics I routinely shot in our backyard; it also led to me hot-footing it down to the video store to track down VHS copies of Hard Times and The Warriors, as well as recording TV broadcasts of 48 Hours and Brewster’s Million, catching Johnny Handsome at the Hoyts Regent in Brisbane’s Queen St Mall, and constantly listening to the soundtrack for Crossroads on cassette. When I eventually discovered there were such things as film scripts, I found my way to Hill’s superb screenplay for The Getaway, as well as to his masterpiece, at least in terms of literature – the rewrite he and David Giler did on Alien.

As I grew older and more cinephilic, my researches expanded into Walter Hill’s unrealised movie projects. Like every filmmaker he had plenty of them, starting with his first completed screenplay, the never-filmed Western Lloyd Williams and His Brother (though Hill admitted he later cannibalised elements of this for Hard Times). The list of movies announced for Hill but never made by him went on to include proposed remakes (versions of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Killer, The Magnificent Seven), projects ultimately directed by others (Revenge, Dick Tracy, The Fugitive), proposed remakes ultimately directed by others (The Getaway), intriguing-sounding thrillers (Vengeance is Mine, Red White Black and Blue, The Last Good Kiss), adaptations of classic film noir novels (Red Harvest, Pop. 1280), a romantic comedy (Lone Star)… and The Last Gun.

Hill was meant to direct The Last Gun after The Driver, in collaboration with the latter movie’s producer, Larry Gordon, and financiers, Britain’s EMI Films, from a script by Hill and Roger Spottiswoode. Indeed, Hill’s The Last Gun commitment was reportedly a key reason why he did not consider directing Alien, despite working on that project as a writer and producer (that, and the fact Hill disliked sci-fi). Unfortunately, finance fell through at the last minute and The Last Gun was never made. No public reason was given, but presumably, Hill could not find an appropriate (i.e. bankable) star; I also assume the box office disappointment of The Driver did not help; neither would the fact The Last Gun was a Western, which by the late seventies were becoming increasingly rare. Hill and Gordon responded with admirable nimbleness, setting up The Warriors at Paramount shortly afterwards; over the next decade they occasionally discussed the possibility of reviving The Last Gun but it never happened.

The Last Gun was the unfilmed Hill script I wanted to read more than any other – in part because the title sounded cool, but mostly because it was written during what I consider the filmmaker’s peak period of 1975 to 1984 when he was turning out classic after classic: Hard Times, The Driver, Alien, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, 48 Hours, Streets of Fire; even his little-remembered pilot script for the short-lived 1977 TV series Dog and Cat reportedly inspired Shane Black to write Lethal Weapon.

This was Hill’s “haiku” era as a writer, when he specialised in penning scripts that were ultra sparse, with lots of short sentences, one-sentence paragraphs, and extremely spare dialogue and descriptions. This style was inspired by Alex Jacobs’ now-legendary screenplay for the 1967 neo-noir Point Blank, which Hill said “just knocked me out (not easy to do); it was both playable and literary. Written in a whole different way than standard format (laconic, elliptical, suggestive rather than explicit, bold in the implied editorial style), I thought Alex’s script was a perfect complement to the material, hard, tough, and smart.” Hill employed this style on some of his most famous screenplays – Hard Times, The Driver, Alien, and The Warriors – as well as The Last Gun

Hill often wrote in collaboration – regular co-scribes over the years included David Giler, Larry Gross and Lukas Heller. On The Last Gun he shared script duties with Roger Spottiswoode, who had edited Hard Times and wanted to branch into directing; Hill advised him that the quickest path was via writing and the two men collaborated on several scripts, of which The Last Gun was the first (the second was 48 Hours – and Spottiswoode did indeed become a director).

Earlier this year I visited the WGA West Library in Los Angeles, an invaluable source of unmade/early draft screenplays, and finally got the chance to read a draft of The Last Gun. Dated from the year 1979 (two years after the project was announced in the press), it clocked in at 124 pages, in part because of all those one-sentence paragraphs Hill was fond of at the time. I was delighted to find it a terrific read, fast, tough and clean – you could easily “see” the film, and it made me regret even more the fact the script was never filmed.

The Last Gun is a Western set in the American south-west during the year 1915. (Most Hollywood Westerns taking place in that time period tend to be located in Mexico – the Pancho Villa era – but not this one, giving it some novelty straight away.) The script is divided into three parts with each section given a title page plus a quote from the Book of Bushido.

The lead character of The Last Gun is a bounty hunter called Ronin – and there’s a brief explanation at the front of the script as to what ronin were, as presumably they weren’t that well known in 1979 Hollywood. The character isn’t Japanese – or if he is, no one comments on it – but has a very samurai “vibe” and is described in the following terms:

“He’s been there. Saw it happen. Usually took part. Veteran of undeclared wars. Survivor of unnamed battles. Unspoken code, interior grace. By his walk and manner he’s one of the special ones.”

Now that’s how you describe a star part! 

Hill was open about his admiration for the films of Kurosawa, as well as the samurai-influenced crime movies of Jean-Pierre Melville. Indeed, the heroes of The Getaway, Hard Times and The Driver all felt samurai-esque, but Hill was never previously as explicit about his influences as using a name like “Ronin”. (Incidentally, the director wasn’t alone at the time in wanting to cross-pollinate Westerns with Japanese cinema – Clint Eastwood became a star in spaghetti Western remakes of Kurosawa movies and Toshiro Mifune played a samurai touring the old west in 1971’s Red Sun.)

It is easy to imagine Ronin being portrayed by any number of seventies tough guy stars, particularly Steve McQueen (who had been in The Getaway), Charles Bronson (who had been in Hard Times) or Clint Eastwood (who would have been splendid in either The Getaway or Hard Times). The script feels a natural especially for Bronson and while reading it I became irrationally angry with that actor for not wanting to work with Hill any more after Hard Times – apparently, this was due to Bronson’s unhappiness over the director’s trimming of scenes involving the star’s wife (and frequent co-star) Jill Ireland; it’s a shame because the styles of Bronson and Hill meshed beautifully.

Part one of The Last Gun kicks off with Ronin arriving on the train at Monroe City in America’s south-west. He meets police chief Harry Walker (a dapper man in his early 30s) and patrolman Moon Grady. Ronin is a bounty hunter on a job with a thousand dollars reward: to collect Gishboy Combs, who raped a girl and was sentenced to two years on a work gang but only served five months. Problem is, Gishboy happens to be the son of Preston Combs, a wealthy rancher who doesn’t want his boy going back inside. 

Like Ronin, Preston is a familiar Western archetype – a ruthless businessman, smart, surrounded by henchmen, worthy of respect as an adversary, instantly appreciative of the protagonist’s abilities, aware his son is useless but sticking up for him nonetheless (he reminded me of the Russian crime boss in the first John Wick). Preston tells Ronin to “get off my land”, our star heads back into town to buy a horse, Preston sends his son into hiding with some guards, then orders his goons to scare away Ronin, but the bounty hunter beats them up. 

Ronin goes looking for Gishboy and crosses with an old drunk called Sloane whose daughter Aggie has run off with the rapist, unaware of the latter’s true nature. Ronin finds Gishboy and his guards, who are with Aggie; a shoot out ensues, which Ronin wins, enabling him to take custody of Gishboy, with Aggie tagging along. Preston steps into action and gets a posse of men to go rescue his son.

Ronin, Gishboy and Aggie cross through a town called Eloy where they meet Arthur Dempsey, described in the script as “a big aging man with a lot of weather in his face” (or, as I like to think of it, the Warren Oates part). Dempsey guesses Ronin’s identity by the bounty hunter’s habit of putting a rope around his prisoner’s neck, and in turn, Ronin recognises Dempsey as a former outlaw. (Dempsey is probably the best character in the screenplay – he’s the most lively, and you’re never sure of his true agenda until the very end.) 

Preston crosses with Sloane (Aggie’s dad) who waves a gun at the rancher so Preston shoots him dead. Dempsey offers to help Ronin fight Preston and the bounty hunter agrees. End of part one.

In part two, our heroes cross with some hired guns and there’s a shoot out involving a truck, which serves to remind the reader that this is all taking place in 1915. They arrive back in Monroe, where Walker (the police chief) isn’t exactly excited to see them – he knows  Preston will come to rescue his son with guns blazing, Rio Bravo style. (Walker is another strong character because, like Dempsey, you’re not sure if he’s ultimately going to support Ronin or not. Aggie, the girl, isn’t as memorable – you think she’s going to be important but is mostly just feisty. The only other female part of note is a landlady called Mrs Applegate who has a brief, enjoyably no-nonsense sexual fling with Ronin.)

Preston arrives in town and sees his son, who he clearly has little time for, but family is family, so he warns Ronin he’s going to come and rescue the little brat. Dempsey suggests to Walker that the two of them steal Gishboy for Preston but Walker refuses. Dempsey then decides to fight it out alongside Ronin.

There’s a lovely night-before-the-battle sequence where Dempsey goes off to a brothel, Preston (a genuinely three-dimensional villain) reflects on his dead wife, Aggie asks Ronin if he can go to her father’s funeral even though she didn’t like her dad, and Walker is wistful to Ronin about the upcoming battle. Part two ends.

In part three Ronin attends the funeral of Aggie’s father, then he and Walker take Gishboy out of the cell to have him shaved, and Dempsey puts on a deputy’s badge. Preston rides into town with his men and a big climactic shoot out ensues, with Ronin kicking a lot of arse, helped by Dempsey and Walker.

There’s a neat finale where Ronin puts Gishboy up on the gallows in a standoff with Preston – making Walker shoot at Ronin because hanging Gishboy is against the law (providing a neat ethical dilemma for Walker, until Dempsey persuades the police chief to not go through with it). Ronin ends up shooting Preston dead then hanging Gishboy – only it’s with a deliberately extra long rope so Gishboy lives.

The final scenes involve Ronin handing over Gishboy to Dempsey, telling the old-timer that he can collect the thousand dollar reward, suggesting he give some of it to Aggie (who has a kind of burgeoning romance going on with Moon, the patrolman). There’s vague hints that Ronin had some personal stake in this quest to do with the girl that Gishboy raped but it is never spelled out. Ronin goes off into the sunset via a train. The end.

The Last Gun is an exciting, tight script which, under Hill’s direction, would have made a terrific movie. It has flaws: Aggie and Mrs. Applegate feel under-utilised and Ronin is perhaps too much of a superman – in particular, the third act would have been more exciting if things had been harder for him (if Dempsey had turned traitor, say, or Walker or Moon had been killed). The 1915 setting isn’t particularly well used apart from the occasional appearance of motor vehicles and reference to them “not using bounty hunters much these days” –  the film’s soul is really in the nineteenth century. But the virtues outweigh the negatives.

Like many seventies Hollywood genre pieces from the movie brat generation (Milius, Spielberg, Lucas, etc) the script wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve: Westerns, of course, but also samurai movies (which in turn were heavily influenced by Westerns), crime thrillers and neo-noirs. Hill’s favourite directors included Melville, Ford, Walsh, Hawks, Kurosawa and Peckinpah, and you can feel their influence all over The Last Gun. You can also sense that Hill grew up loving comic books (which he did) because the script has a clean narrative drive and splash panel approach to characters similar to that art form.

The script has is action, movement, colour and emotion – with the right star The Last Gun had an excellent chance of being a hit, or at least profitable. (By “right star” I mean one the public would have accepted in the role – I think Ryan O’Neal was excellent in The Driver but audiences weren’t willing to go with him in that part in 1978.) It feels more obviously commercial than say Hill’s The Long Riders which is more narratively sprawling and felt as though it was better suited to a mini-series format. 

Of course, we’ll never know.

Or will we? 

Because thanks to tight writing and its period setting the script for The Last Gun has aged very well – you could film it tomorrow. You might have to pull back on some of the production value to keep the budget down but the project is not inherently expensive. Nor is it intrinsically “1915” in terms of story, so the action could, if needed, be updated to the present day. The success of the John Wick trilogy shows there is a strong market for such tales – and The Last Gun is basically John Wick with spurs.
Walter Hill is still alive and there are plenty of stars around who would make an ideal Ronin (Costner, Reeves, Hemsworth, Jackson, Jolie, Therzon – Ronin doesn’t have to be a guy). So… who knows? Maybe there’s still a chance we’ll yet see The Last Gun on our screens.

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About Stephen Vagg

Stephen Vagg is the author of "Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood" the first biography of Australian actor Rod Taylor which subsequently adapted into the documentary feature, "Rod Taylor: Pulling No Punches". He has written extensively on film and theatre history, including groundbreaking pieces on Alec Coppel, Frank Harvey and Alfred Rolfe. He is also an AFI-nominated and AWGIE-winning screenwriter, whose credits include "Neighbours" and "Home and Away" as well as two feature films, "All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane" and "Jucy"; he was head writer on "Neighbours" for over three years. His plays have been performed around the world, including Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and London.

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