"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Last Hard Men (Fox, 1976)


Another end-of-the-West tale




 
 
I had better declare an interest: I am a big Brian Garfield fan. This is not because of Death Wish junk or anything like that (though Hopscotch was amusing) but because of his absolutely superb 1982 guide to Western movies, which is opinionated, amusing, perceptive, outspoken, enjoyable and nearly always right. He also wrote the novel Gun Down on which The Last Hard Men is based (and two episodes of Wild Times on TV). Garfield knows the West and the Western, and he writes really well about them.
 
 Brian Garfield

The Last Hard Men is not the greatest of Western movies. It is 70s tough and bloody, and contains a slo-mo rape scene. And it also suffers from its leading man: Charlton Heston was only ever really good in one Western (Will Penny) and in all the others (he appeared in ten) he was at best adequate and sometimes poor. His first three, The Savage, Pony Express and Arrowhead, were pretty much dross (and Arrowhead was toxic too). His most famous Westerns were probably the overblown The Big Country and the flawed Major Dundee. It’s surprising, perhaps, for such an all-American macho gun-lover; you’d think that Westerns would be perfect for him. Maybe he was just unlucky in his choice of scripts or maybe he just wasn’t a very good actor, I don't know. In The Last Hard Men he plays Sam Burgade, a retired lawman who sets out in pursuit of an escaped convict who has kidnapped his daughter. Heston wears 1970s clothes and bad false whiskers, and comes across (as he often did) as sour and churlish.
 
Charlton Heston
 
The film was directed by Andrew V McLaglen. I have discoursed elsewhere on the abilities (or otherwise) of Mr. McLaglen as a director of Westerns. Let’s just say here that he wasn’t in the top echelons of the profession. Most famous for Gunsmoke and Have Gun – Will Travel on TV, which were indeed usually (not always) very good, he also worked on big-screen Westerns in various capacities from 1945 on and started directing them in 1956 with a Gunsmoke-spin-off James Arness picture known as Gun the Man Down (which sounds a bit like Garfield’s novel but isn’t). His record on the big screen was not good, though. Part of the John Wayne clan of groupies, he directed such Duke farragos as McLintock! and Chisum, and he also did the three weakest James Stewart oaters, the ‘family saga-ish’ Shenandoah, the second-rate Bandolero! and the embarrassingly bad The Rare Breed. In The Last Hard Men McLaglen seems, unusually, to be going for a Peckinpahish vibe (and the Major Dundee stars help), but he doesn’t quite bring it off.
 
Andrew  McLaglen
 
Still, The Last Hard Men does have its plus points too. James Coburn, for one. He plays the escaped convict Provo, “half Injun and all killer”, bent on revenge against the man who put him away. Provo is clever, manipulative and very, very angry. Coburn was a sort of anti-Heston, really good in any Western he appeared in, even if it was TV pulp. He started doing oaters on TV in 1958 and at one time or another was in pretty well every Western TV show you care to name.

His big-screen Western debut came with a first-class performance in Ride Lonesome, one of that excellent series of Budd Boetticher-directed Randolph Scott oaters in the late 50s. In 1960 he was of course the silent knifeman Britt in The Magnificent Seven. He was one of the best things about Major Dundee as the one-armed scout Samuel Potts, and although I personally don't care for Duck, You Sucker (or whatever you want to call it) - a combination of Rod Steiger and Sergio Leone being pretty well death to film quality - it certainly added to Coburn’s fame. The high-point of Coburn's Western career was undoubtedly again with Sam Peckinpah, as Pat Garrett in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. He was perhaps the best screen Garrett ever. The Last Hard Men was one of his last big-screen Westerns and he is excellent in it.
 
The showdown: Heston v Coburn
 
We are in 1900s Arizona, with telephones, automobiles, refrigerated trains and automatic pistols. There is a strong end-of-the-West tinge to the movie, as hero Heston disparages these accoutrements of modern-day society and returns to the saddle and six-gun, casting off collar and tie and suit in favor of range duds, to lead an old-fashioned posse against the murderous criminals. “Modern times,” he moans. “I liked the world the way it was.” He gets his chance: “Zac Provo’s made it my time again.” Of course, titles with ‘Last’ in them go for this aspect, as The Last Challenge, The Last Command, The Last Day, The Last Hunt, The Last Outlaw, The Last Post, The Last Posse, The Last Rebel, The Last Round-Up, The Last Stagecoach West, The Last Sunset, The Last Train from Gun Hill and The Last Wagon will testify, to name but a few, as well as The Last of the Badmen, The Last of the Comanches, The Last of the Desperadoes, The Last of the Duanes, The Last of the Fast Guns, The Last of the Mohicans, The Last of the Pony Riders and The Last of the Redmen. They all play on this regretful idea of the closing frontier, and the polluting effects of encroaching ‘civilization’, and in many ways nostalgia (dread word) was built into Westerns from the very outset. Watch The Wild Bunch or The Shootist and you’ll see what I mean.
 
Nice Roger Deakins-ish shot of James Coburn in the grass
 
The band of escapees number (naturally) seven, and everyone knows this is the Mystical Western Number. Mind, they are soon down to six when they murder one of their less savory colleagues, and of course, as is the way in these movies, they are, one by one, killed off until only the boss bad guy remains (he’s always the last to die). There are fairly standard gang members, such as the African-American Weed (Thalmus Rasulala) and a kid, Shelby (Larry Wilcox). Provo’s sidekick is the Mexican Menendez (Jorge Rivero) and he is quite good too. John Quade plays the ugly rapist Gant. They are an unpleasant bunch, as they were supposed to be.
 
Rivero as Coburn sidkick
 
On the side of the goodies, Christopher Mitchum is Hal, the young fiancé of Heston’s daughter who accompanies his prospective father-in-law despite Heston’s misgivings. Though a greenhorn from Massachusetts (how greenhorn can you get?) he turns out to be tougher than expected, in fact in some ways tougher than his gal’s dad. There was quite a tradition in Westerns of Easternetrs turning out to be gutsier than expected, the Posse from Hell syndrome. Barbara Hershey is said gal, Susan. She’s not bad. I liked Michael Parks as Burgade’s young successor, Sheriff Nye. He is shrewd, observant and tolerant of his dinosaur predecessor.
 
With greenhorn Mitchum
 
The Jerry Goldsmith music is rather good, brazen and sinister by turns. There’s also some nice cinematography by Duke Callaghan, the Jeremiah Johnson chap, of Old Tucson and Saguaro National Park locations. The stunts were coordinated by Yak’s son Joe Canutt, who doubled for Heston, and brother Tap stunt-doubled Coburn.

So a mixed bag, then, but because of Garfield, Coburn, Callaghan and Goldsmith, I’ve given it a three-revolver rating.


Michael Parks as young sheriff

So long, e-pards.

 

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