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Rape And Revenge In Arizona
on August 24, 2004
Easily one of the least-known western movies in history to pair two great actors against one another, THE LAST HARD MEN is a painfully underrated sagebrush saga that at first might seem old-fashioned but turns out to be a very timely meditation on the final days of the West. It is on video now through Unicorn, but this 1976 film deserves to be released by its original distributor, 20th Century Fox, on video and DVD in its uncut form. It only runs 97 minutes here; in its uncut form, it was 105 minutes.
Based on the 1972 novel "Gun Down" by Brian Garfield, who also wrote "Death Wish" and is a western enthusiast, THE LAST HARD MEN stars Charlton Heston as an aging lawman who had once been a proud member of the Arizona Territorial Police but now in 1908 has now turned the reins of law enforcement over to a reform-minded younger man (Michael Parks). He laments about how the railroad changed the makeup of the West--that and, as Parks points out, the auto, the telegraph, and the telephone.
But before Heston can really call it quits, he has to contend with a vengeful half-breed outlaw (James Coburn) whom he put away fifteen years earlier for a train robbery near Santa Fe that killed Coburn's wife. Coburn is out to settle the score with Heston; and to force Heston into a fatal confrontation, he kidnaps Heston's daughter (Barbara Hershey) and allows his sadistic gang to rape her. The result is a jarring and frequently violent pursuit through the Arizona mountains and deserts.
Surprisingly, even though the film was directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, who worked with John Wayne on several of the Duke's later westerns and who normally modelled his directing style off of John Ford, THE LAST HARD MEN has the hard edge of a Sam Peckinpah film, right down to the themes of the demise of the Old West, unchanging men in changing times, and jarring bursts of bloodshed and violence sometimes rent in slow-motion (hence the 'R' rating). McLaglen nevertheless directs the proceedings with professionalism. Coburn makes for an absolutely chilling main villain, and his gang, which includes Jorge Rivero, John Quade, and Robert Donner, rank right up there with the bounty hunters of THE WILD BUNCH and the sadistic rednecks of DELIVERANCE for sheer nastiness. Heston, meanwhile, gives probably the best performance of any that he gave during the 1970s as the aging lawman forced to put on the badge one more time. Christopher Mitchum also does well as Hershey's soon-to-be husband.
The score by Jerry Goldsmith, though it is cribbed from his scores to the 1966 remake of STAGECOACH and 1969's 100 RIFLES, is flavorful enough (Leonard Rosenman was supposed to have done the original score). Filmed entirely on location near Tucson, Arizona, THE LAST HARD MEN deserves to be seen, as it is a worthy, if frequently violent, saga, but hopefully it will one day be seen in its original 1976 cut.