Early in Last of the Dogmen, Barbara Hershey and Tom Berenger are exploring the Montana wilderness when she tumbles down a bank to the edge of a cliff. He goes to help her and takes a spill himself. The two are clinging to a rope tied to Berenger's horse, so Berenger's marvelous little dog grabs the horse's reins and pulls them to safety. Hershey then sheepishly observes, "The smartest member of this expedition is a dog." Maybe the producers should have given the dog a crack at rewriting the script, an early, dusted-off effort by director Tab Murphy, who, after writing this one for practice, went on to co-write Gorillas in the Mist. Murphy should have considered leaving the Dogmen script in his file cabinet--this movie has the most unapologetically retro dialogue in years.
Lines that were already clichs before talkies came in are spouted here as if they were new and fresh. A small sample: Berenger, an experienced bounty hunter, insists to Hershey, an archaeologist, that she mustn't accompany him into the wilderness by telling her, "It's no place for a woman!" I'm not saying, alas, that this sentiment is bygone--recent events at the Citadel prove it's not--only that even someone backward enough to still hold it might be embarrassed to express it in such hackneyed terms. The reason for the expedition is that Berenger, while tracking some escaped convicts, thought he saw some old-fashioned Indians on horses, and even retrieved an arrow from them. Hershey identifies it as in the style of the Dogmen, a warrior society of the Cheyenne presumed extinct after an Army massacre in the last century. Could it be that there's a lost tribe of them still living in the unexplored Montana back country? This handsomely shot modern Western is an expansive, highly sentimental tall tale. There's even corn-pone narration, in the calculatingly folksy tones of Wilford Brimley. The film wouldn't be worth mentioning, except that it's laced with flashes of visual beauty.
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After a few too many of the sort of banal adventures described above, Hershey and Berenger finally come face to face with the Dogmen as mounted Cheyenne warriors surround them and take them prisoner. At this point, Last of the Dogmen becomes a little bit thrilling in spite of its dumb self.
The dialogue and dramatics don't get any better. It's lucky the Dogmen don't speak English, since even to people who've been out of circulation since the 1800s, some of the exchanges between Berenger and Hershey would probably still be Groansville.
Yet on a visual level, this shoestring film evokes the childlike, Saturday-matinee wonder at the notion of unknown lands and lost cultures far more effectively than this summer's much slicker lost-world adventure Congo.
Make no mistake, Last of the Dogmen (which was shot, by the way, not in Montana but in Mexico and Alberta) is a mostly terrible movie. But intermittently, for a few seconds at a time, it's also a magical one. At least one image sticks in the mind when the film is over--a war-painted brave, caught in the searchlight of a helicopter.