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 Noel 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.