If you look at the west­ern as a gen­re that explic­it­ly com­ments on America then its 1970’s peri­od is fas­ci­nat­ing.  It was an era when American soci­ety was at its most tur­bu­lent and unpre­dictable on mul­ti­ple lev­els.  During this time, a new breed of movie­go­er arose that demand­ed more from Hollywood than the light escapism of yes­ter­year — and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, released in 1969, ensured that the decade that fol­lowed would be dan­ger­ous for any­one try­ing to make a sim­ple, blood­less “white hat vs. black hat” west­ern.  Let’s also not for­get how the cyn­i­cal, some­times grue­some and very pop­u­lar wave of spaghet­ti west­erns from the late 1960’s also trans­formed expec­ta­tions of what a west­ern should be.

Thus, it was a per­fect time for a grim take on the gen­re like The Last Hard Men.  This film is an adap­ta­tion of a nov­el by Brian Garfield, the same writer who penned the orig­i­nal, more down­beat nov­el of Death Wish, and it pur­sues a like-mind­ed take on the cor­ro­sive nature of mas­cu­line aggres­sion.  The end result is a part of the “death of the Old West” sub­gen­re of Westerns that The Wild Bunch spawned yet it adds its own sub­ver­sive ideas to the mix.

On the sur­face, the film seems to be a stan­dard issue west­ern premise: an aging con named Provo (James Coburn) escapes from a pris­on work gang with a group of like-mind­ed com­padres.  He leads them toward the tar­get he’s been plot­ting again­st for years: Sam Burgade (Charlton Heston), a now-retired sher­iff who lives with his daugh­ter, Susan (Barbara Hershey).  Burgade gets wind of Provo’s escape and tries to safe­guard again­st it with the help of new sher­iff Noël Nye (Michael Parks) but Provo out­wits him, cap­tures Sarah and heads for the hills.  With his daughter’s life hang­ing in the bal­ance, Burgade has no choice but to fol­low.

However, The Last Hard Men plays out in an exis­ten­tial­ly bleak man­ner that places it square­ly in the post-Peckinpah revi­sion­ist west­ern cat­e­go­ry.  Forget that the film has a pair of clas­sic lead­ing-man stars and a direc­tor (Andrew V. McLaglen) best known for doing tra­di­tion­al­ist Western work with the likes of John Wayne.  In fact, McLaglen’s state­ly visu­al approach and the high pro­duc­tion val­ues actu­al­ly make the blood­shed and sav­agery in the sto­ry­line feel more sub­ver­sive.  The result presents a world that looks like the clas­sic cin­e­mat­ic American west we know… but it is also a ver­sion where sense­less vio­lence and the ugli­est side of human nature have run amuck.

An impor­tant key to the film’s tone is the script by Guerdon Trueblood, a writer and film­mak­er who most­ly did t.v. work but earned eter­nal hero sta­tus around Schlockmania head­quar­ters for writ­ing Welcome Home Soldier Boys and direct­ing The Candy Snatchers.  Like those films, The Last Hard Men is informed by a down­beat view of life and human­i­ty.  In his script, nat­u­ral lead­ers of men either become twist­ed by bad cir­cum­stances (Provo) or slip into idle­ness and dis­con­tent (Burgade) as the relent­less march of time pass­es them by.  Even worse, they’ll be dri­ven to extremes to prove their indi­vid­u­al­ist val­ues, beset on all sides by doubters, as they make their way towards a lethal clash of wills with each oth­er.  In oth­er words, this is no light Western pro­gram­mer.  It’s out to draw blood from both its char­ac­ters and its audi­ence.

Behind the cam­era, McLaglen makes a smart deci­sion to let the script do the talk­ing.  He con­ducts its ele­ments in a con­fi­dent man­ner, keep­ing the pac­ing tight and mak­ing great use of stun­ning west­ern vis­tas as an iron­ic coun­ter­point to the ever-more-hor­ri­fic events of the sto­ry­line.  He also tips his hat to Peckinpah with slow motion in a few key sce­nes with­out over­do­ing this flour­ish.  Better yet, he gets com­mit­ted and intense per­for­mances from a well-stocked cast.

And speak­ing of that cast: fans of 1970’s cult film­mak­ing will have a field day with the sup­port­ing play­ers in this film.  Coburn’s gang of rough­necks fea­tures cool 1970’s tough guys like Thalmus Rasulala and John Quade, not to men­tion a sneer­ing turn from Morgan Paull and a young Larry Wilcox as the “kid” of the group.  Even bet­ter, there’s a nice turn from Jorge Rivero, a star of many Mexican flicks, as Coburn’s right-hand man.  He doesn’t get too much to do but he’s got a great, sin­is­ter pres­ence.  Elsewhere, Parks gives a fun per­for­mance that seems to chan­nel Bo Hopkins as the sher­iff, Chris Mitchum turns up as an unlike­ly ally for Heston and Hershey deserves a spe­cial com­men­da­tion for giv­ing a spirit­ed per­for­mance in a very dif­fi­cult role.

Best of all, the film is anchored by strong work from Coburn and Heston.  Coburn gets the flashier of the two roles and throws him­self into it with all the charis­mat­i­cal­ly men­ac­ing machis­mo he can sum­mon up.  Whether he’s chas­ing Hershey around a room or keep­ing his unruly crew in line, he eas­i­ly sells the view­er on the white-hot rage that dri­ves his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion.  Heston is more reserved, at least until the film’s lat­ter stages, as the film’s lost hero but his work is qui­et­ly impres­sive.  A lot of what he does here is about how the film uses his icon­ic pres­ence as much as the actu­al act­ing — but he ful­ly com­mits to the dark path his char­ac­ter must trav­el and gives his all, espe­cial­ly in the gru­el­ing finale.

In short, The Last Hard Men is a dark, uncom­pro­mis­ing piece of work — but it’s also required view­ing for stu­dents of the 1970’s revi­sion­ist west­ern cycle.