Paul Bartel’s Lust in the Dust aside, there aren’t too many “sleazy” westerns out there. The most cynical parodies retain a certain reverence for the genre and even attempts at revisionist or “de-mystified” westerns, ala McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Unforgiven avoid outright salaciousness. True, you’ll get a Hannie Calder now and then, but even that excuse for sagebrush T&A still cloaked itself in western thematic iconography (insert obvious simile regarding Raquel Welch nude-under-the-serape). For the first sixty-plus years of film history, the Western was the American genre. It was well to which all the studios went for both their epics and their programmers. Just as new directors cut their teeth on horror today, fledgling filmmakers had their mettle tested amidst the “horseshit and gunsmoke”. The western was the encompassing symbol of all things American: the hearty settlers carving life out of the wilderness, the taciturn men facing their problems head-on, the lonely gunfighter fruitlessly seeking redemption, and, of course, westward expansion—manifest destiny—the god-given right to the American government to seize the land before them.
Things began to change in the mid-60s for the Western, just as the entire film landscape was changing, for the usual reasons cited: the Viet-Nam War, the Peace Movement, the collapse of the studio system, the rise of filmmakers raised on film, influenced by European cinema (including the so-called “Spaghetti Westerns” coming out of Italy) that had been, in turn, revolutionized from within by American movies—art is often a snake eating its tail. Two films in particular marked the end of “classic” viewpoints: Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and The Wild Bunch in 1969. These films did more to demystify the programmer genres of the crime story and the western. Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde drove home the idea that crime was a product of nature and nurture and that criminals often came to a more horrific end than a mere clutch of the chest and a face-plant to the pavement. Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch took the graphic depiction of violence even further, splashing blood atop the collapse of the American West. Bad men gunned each other down in the dust all too aware that their world had changed without their permission. The automobile had replaced the horse; the telegraph replaced the romantic (and historically short-lived) image of the Pony Express. With these revised themes came revised filmmaking presentations—slow-motion, fast-motion, special effects and characters whose allegiances weren’t boiled down to the color of their hats. Art reflects the world around it. With the world in turmoil, so, too, was Hollywood.
After the end of Viet-Nam, after Nixon had resigned in disgrace, Americans grit their teeth and either resisted the world as it was, or mourned what they thought they’d lost. Revisionism gave way to cynicism. And cynicism was reflected back at audiences from the movie screens.
Which brings us, finally, to The Last Hard Men. Based on Gun Down, a novel by the original sad tough guy Brian Garfield (whose everyman vigilante novel Death Wish had was adapted to the screen and became a box office success in 1974), The Last Hard Men took the revisionism of Peckinpah and Penn and infused it with the frustration of the ‘60s and heartbreak of the ‘70s, resulting in a movie whose only passion can be found in hatred.
Set in 1908, hardened criminal Zack Provo (James Coburn) kills two guards and escapes a Yuma chain gang along with a half-dozen other convicts. Enticing them with the promise of $30,000 worth of buried gold coins, Provo leads his new gang down a path towards his real destination: the destruction of Sam Burgade (Charlton Heston), the lawman who killed his wife and put him in prison in the first place. Burgade, now both tired and retired, is at odds with the changing landscape. His successor, Pima County Sheriff Noel Nye (Michael Parks), organizes car-driving posses and maintains the law over the phone, more concerned about trains running on time than such antiquated ideas of “outlaws”. Working with Nye, Burgade sets up a juicy bankroll arrival to trap Provo and his gang, but things backfire. Uninterested in a new score, Provo anticipates an ambush and, instead, goes to Burgade’s house and kidnaps his daughter, Susan (Barbara Hershey). Taking her to a Navajo reservation outside of Nye’s jurisdiction, Provo all but guarantees Burgade pursuing him on his own, ensuring the most personal of showdowns. Indeed, this is what happens, with Burgade’s only companion the “civilized” Hal Brickman (Christopher Mitchum), Susan’s fiancée.
Provo’s singular hatred of Burgade is the film’s driving force, and a good number of people caught between the men are hurt or killed, as is to be expected from this type of story. Near the end, to lure Burgade out of hiding, Provo “gives” Susan to his men. They give her a head start down the mountain, but eventually the two worst men of Provo’s gang catch her and make good on Provo’s earlier promise by gang raping her. As shocking as this scene is, what is astounding is that it is Brickman who holds Burgade back, very literally after an impatient Provo shouts—“Burgade! They’re fucking your daughter!” The tenderfoot dandy Brickman is forced to put the butt of his rifle to Burgade’s temple to keep the old man from rushing into the open and certain death.
Until this point in the movie, The Last Hard Men seems to almost revel in its unpleasantness, hence the interpretation of sleaze. The primary theme of modernization devouring all but the most non-receptive of the pioneers gets a bit lost during its time spent with the single-minded and thoroughly awful Provo who is only the worst of the bunch because he’s the leader. Little is revealed about the others in his gang, save that they’re all repellant and unrepentant murderers who turn on each other as quickly as they would on anyone else. Only the young Mike Shelby (CHiPS’ Officer Jon himself, Larry Wilcox), referred to as “the kid” by the other characters, seems out of place amidst the group, implying a less-wholesome prison relationship with Provo. But he too is serving life; unlikely the sentence was for nothing. That he shows tenderness towards Susan, where the others give only lustful brutality, doesn’t let him off the moral hook.
After the rape scene, however, the movie howls with righteous anger and an overdose of testosterone. Some critics have pointed out that, after this point, it’s no longer about Susan, but in truth it never was about her. The Last Hard Men is about two displaced alpha males out to kill each other as brutally as possible. Provo “wants to make it last”; Burgade wants to bring down someone who “beat me once”. Ego begets savagery.
The Last Hard Men is actually at odds with itself from beginning to end. Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, a protégé of John Ford’s who worked second-unit on The Quiet Man and went on to helm straightforward westerns like Shenandoah and McLintock!, The Last Hard Men certainly looks like a traditional western (thanks to the gorgeous cinematography courtesy Duke Callahan (Jeremiah Johnson). Solid western character actors lead the cast: the usually bombastic Charlton Heston gives a surprisingly underplayed performance to help us believe that he’s old and tired; the nigh-impossible to dislike James Coburn does his best to be repugnant and embraces the only aspect of new technology Provo likes, namely an automatic Colt (which he uses to literally gun down a telephone early on in the film). It sounds like a traditional western, thanks to Jerry Goldsmith’s self-cannibalized score—or at least it does for the majority of the film. Then comes that horrific two-thirds mark. Suddenly the movie picks up a Peckinpah edge with the pursuit and rape occurring in agonizing slow motion and atonal assaults of music. Burgade’s rage becomes physical as he and Brickman set the mountainside on fire to smoke out Provo’s gang. At this point, the movie is meant to turn primal, but McLaglan’s heart doesn’t seem in it. The last act of the film is completely different in tone, as if the narrative was poisoned by the rape, that it seems to want to wrap as quickly as possible. Thus the final showdown, while bloody, lacks any kind of catharsis. The viewer is left feeling exhausted, drained and gritty.
Some of the blame can be placed on Guerdon Trueblood’s handling of Garfield’s tough-guy novel. Trueblood had directed the nihilistic The Candy Snatchers the previous year, so maybe some of that unpleasantness still tainted his blood. But the material, overall, seems wrong in McLaglan’s hands. The director, raised on a love for the material and the trappings of the American Western, fights his own movie from open to close, mirroring Burgade’s bemusement with the modern world, but likely sympathizing more with Provo’s disdain of the changing times. McLaglan himself is one of the “Last Hard Men” in this equation. It would seem that he would be much more comfortable with something more traditional, where the heroes wear white hats, the villains wear black, and shades of gray are relegated to the costumes of the extras. The bitter ‘70s, with its love of anti-heroes, held no more fascination for the director, it would seem, than the turn of the new century did for Burgade.
This suspicion is given weight by the fact that following The Last Hard Men, McLaglan returned to television and worked a good deal with The Wonderful World of Disney for the remainder of the ‘70s, returning to the “tough guy” genre only once more with The Wild Geese, which is morally and politically more straight-forward than The Last Hard Men. Upon its previews, the movie was met with derision and critical disgust, leading 20th Century Fox to cut almost ten minutes from the running time prior to release and was loathe to release it to home video for years. It still has not received a domestic DVD release.
Modern audiences, when referring to the movie at all, lump it in with Spaghetti Westerns, citing similarities between its cold-hearted tone and that of Leone’s “Dollars” Trilogy. But where Leone was just playing in the Western sandbox without really understanding what a “western” really was—an argument for another time, but, in short, the Italians were viewing the genre with a detachment, rather than with a sense of history or, to be honest, a sense of homeland pride—McLaglan was a veteran of the Golden Era. The quintessential cowboy, John Wayne, long a symbol of steadfast Americanism (remaining one to this day), had no place in the ‘70s west (how else to explain Brannigan or McQ?). Wayne’s poignant comment on the Golden Era’s end was The Shootist, which let the West die with quiet dignity. McLaglan’s was The Last Hard Men—a death knell and a wail.