After escaping from an Arizona chain-gang, Provo (James Coburn), a half-Indian outlaw, goes gunning for revenge against retired sheriff Sam Burgade (Charlton Heston). To that end Provo and his gang of fellow escapees kidnap Burgade's daughter Susan (Barbara Hershey) as part of a plan to lure him into a bloody ambush.
Novelist Brian Garfield was ill-served by movies. He greatly disliked the film adaptation of Death Wish (1974) and did not care much for The Last Hard Men either, which was based on his 1971 book "Gun Down." Here journeyman western helmsman Andrew V. McLaglen seemed to be impersonating Sam Peckinpah after a career spent largely imitating John Ford and Howard Hawks. Maybe that's not entirely fair. McLaglen's westerns, while derivative, are generally watchable. A handful even flirt with greatness: i.e. Shenandoah (1965), The Way West (1967), Chisum (1970). Yet on the whole his horse operas are forgettable affairs, sorely lacking the poetry and nuance found in the work of his distinguished mentors. Such is the case with The Last Hard Men, a title that today few outside the arena of gay porn could utter with a straight face.
Written by the splendidly-named Guerdon Trueblood the script pays lip service to familiar Peckinpah themes: the fading of the old west, men out of time, camaraderie between outlaws, old fashioned guile versus cold 20th century technology. However McLaglen's direction lifts only the most superficial aspects of Peckinpah's style, namely slow-motion violence and blood squibs. Also included is one of the more unpalatable aspects of Peckinpah's filmography: lingering misogyny. Barbara Hershey's Susan exists solely to be manhandled and brutalized in scenes all the more uncomfortable because the talented actress works hard to humanize a woefully underwritten role. Despite the urgency of Susan's plight the plot proves frustratingly inert. Between macho musings Trueblood's talky script proves deeply shallow and confines most of the action its third act. We mostly just lazily follow Charlton Heston around as he sweats, grimaces and offs the occasional bad guy. Until the gory yet strangely anticlimactic slow-mo showdown.
Heston's grouchy Sam Brigade, whom one presumes had more depth in Garfield's novel, is a hard hero to like. Bull-headed and self-righteous, he is prone to bouts of sadism. Even so Heston's straightforward characterization arguably suits a story that proves far less profound and faceted than it evidently thinks itself to be. James Coburn, dressed like he is headed for a Wild West themed swinger's party at the Playboy Mansion, starts out an intriguing antagonist. But all too quickly reverts to psychotic cliche. While the leads get by on old time movie star charisma and Hershey elevates an undignified role, McLaglen strands the rest of his supporting cast at sea. We get a Rio Lobo (1970) reunion with Jorge Rivero and Christopher Mitchum here, this time on opposing sides, with neither given much of anything to do. The same goes for future Quentin Tarantino favourite Michael Parks who at least gives a wry turn as a young sheriff that puts more stock in his newfangled telephone than a shootout. Elsewhere Jerry Goldsmith's score frequently goes into bombastic overdrive, trumpeting Big Epic Moments that don't play as convincingly. In fact Goldsmith, a last-minute replacement for original composer Leonard Roseman (who quit because he disliked the film!), culls most of the music from his earlier scores for film and television.