Starring: James Coburn, Charlton Heston, Jorge Rivero, Michael Parks, Barbara Hershey
Director: Andrew V. McLaglen
Mood: If you’re in the worst mood and you want to watch James Coburn be ruthlessly angry for an hour and a half so you don’t run the risk of finding anything to be cheerful about.
I bought The Last Hard Men expecting it to be either kind of funny or kind of cheesy. MY BAD. It’s no comedy, but as far as 1970s Western movies go, it’s a winner.
I tend to go off about loathing that entire decade, because I think most of its Westerns are utter crap – with only two exceptions I’ve found so far:
- The Outlaw Josey Wales is an overall better movie than this one, and would still be my top pick for the ‘70s
- The Last Hard Men is super well-made, the acting is strong across the board, and my only qualm is that it makes you hate on James Coburn
The reason I expected the movie to be funny is because James Coburn usually makes me laugh. He wasn’t a comedic actor so much as a slick-looking badass who could crack you up with a one-liner or a look, because you expect him to just be the tough guy. His uniquely sly humour is evident in his small early role in The Magnificent Seven, in his various Spaghetti Westerns, and in Maverick.
Anyway, The Last Hard Men is NOT funny in any way. In fact, it needs a trigger warning for a rape scene. Coburn said it best: “It was very hard to justify my character’s vendetta with Charlton Heston. He had no redeeming qualities. He was just out for revenge.”
There’s no happy ending here, just a lot of hard, mean men, a lot of violence, and Charlton Heston. All of which makes it a pretty damn authentic Western.
The Last Hard Men takes place in 1909 Arizona. There’s no buildup of any kind – you dive straight into the action.
Zach Provo (James Coburn) and Menendez (Jorge Rivero) are on a chain gang, but Provo fakes a fall, stuffs a spike down his boot, and next thing you know the lawmen are dead and the inmates are free. Some go off into the desert, but Provo has clearly been working the others for some time because with only minor threats and bullying they stick with him.
Provo is out for revenge on the man who sent him up to Yuma, and murdered his wife. That man is retired Arizona Ranger Sam Burgade (Charlton Heston).
The rest of the movie is an increasingly rage-fueled cat-and-mouse game that leads to almost everyone getting shot up and, in most cases, killed. One guy gets shot AND burned alive. This is not a Western pick-me-up!
And through it all you don’t know who to root for. Provo has this backstory of a possibly murdered wife which seems like a fair reason for revenge, like he’s an antihero. But he just gets colder and meaner, and Burgade is actually a decent guy, and Provo’s lackey Shelby (Larry Wilcox) reveals himself to be incredibly sweet… but don’t get your hopes up.
My biggest impression of The Last Hard Men is that it’s incredibly realistic, both for this era and for this genre. Despite the fantastically high level of violence, it never feels gratuitous or overproduced. The events could have happened in the last days of the Wild West, exactly as they’re portrayed.
- 26 men escaped from Yuma in the 33 years it was a functioning prison
- Arizona is still to this day among the “kidnapping capitals” of the United States
- Revenge IS the driving force behind one in five murders in developed countries
That realism is what hooked me – there’s no glorified sharpshooter or gunslinger, the odds aren’t heavily stacked on one exceptional man. Each character is a flawed human fighting through gruelling chases, escapes, and shootouts to be the last man standing.
From the way the characters interact to the settings and action itself, it’s just all refreshingly free from the Hollywood Western filter. Well… as refreshing as a dry, unforgiving desert can be. The men on both sides of the law spend the entire movie sweaty and filthy and miserable, and it drives their collective desperation, and their lust for killing.
James Coburn dominates his scenes from the get-go. His cruel squint and tall, wiry frame radiate a coiled-snake energy that make his bark every bit as scary as his bite. You can totally see why he was Bruce Lee’s best student in his physicality.
But while Coburn is consistently nasty, Charlton Heston takes you through a wide range of feeling and acting that’s thoroughly befitting of his character. He delivers a masterful mix of a peaceful, retired old guy and the tough, tenacious lawman who can still track and kill with the best of them.
Jorge Rivero plays well off of Coburn in the gang, and has the best moustache of the movie. Rivero manages to look charming and attractive while literally stabbing a guy in the back. And hey, a Mexican bad guy is played by a real Mexican actor!
Larry Wilcox makes a memorable turn in his first movie role as the soft-hearted young criminal Shelby. And I have to give mad props to Barbara Hershey as Burgade’s kidnapped daughter. Usually the pretty women in ‘60s and ‘70s Westerns have big hair and too much makeup, and exist only to distract the men. But Hershey gives you a strong, capable young woman, even when she’s victimized.
The Last Hard Men is absolutely packed with gritty Western action. So many shootings. So many chases. Nobody escapes unharmed. It fully lives up to its title.
I’d recommend this to anyone who appreciates realistic Westerns, and doesn’t need a happy ending to enjoy a movie. The rare time I’m craving something dark and sinister as opposed to glorious Western action, production, or comedy, I would watch this again.