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‘Drive Off the Sheep, Keep the Goats’
The Last Hard Men, 1976, James Coburn and Charlton Heston

The Last Hard Men is one of James Coburn’s most masterful performances. He is a villain, Provo, a vicious half-breed convict on a Southwestern Chain gang in 1909, who effects the murder of the guards and takes over the convicts with force of will. The best line in the movie is when he says to his brutal, hyper-masculine Mexican partner after they are all set free, “Drive off the sheep, keep the goats.”

The felons who remain include perennial villains of 1970s cinema, making this one of the best cast movies I have seen. Charlton Heston, the man who locked up “Provo,” receives news that Provo has escaped and knows that vengeance is coming his way. The retired law man uses informal moral authority and his own willful nature to contest Provo’s bid for retribution. The dynamics in the criminal gang are more brutal than those of the posse in pursuit, with the core of the gang authentically depicted as two extreme outliers acting in lethal alliance to force discipline upon the lesser psychopaths they lead, one with wild arrogance, reminding the others that whatever great idea they just came up with that he thought of it three minutes earlier and was already acting on his superior assessment of the situation they but dimly are beginning to grasp, the other with menacing silence couples with direct action.

In this, there is little contrast with the retired lawman taking the lead of the posse without formal authority, reminding the authorized law officers that he carries the inner badge of experience and that the beta male managerial type of lawman that succeeded him is not up to dealing with the old way of men.

The fact that criminals tend to leadership by extremely alienated outlier personalities or “Omega Men” and that law enforcement and other sanctioned leadership positions universally depend on Alpha male leadership in the pioneer and foundational period and then whimperingly devolve into the hands of Beta Male management, is well illustrated in this simmering tale of bad men operating on either side of the law.

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Add Comment
ShepJune 26, 2019 10:41 PM UTC

Hard Times!

1. Strother Martin

2. James Coburn

3. Mr. Charles Bronson
responds:June 27, 2019 10:24 AM UTC

bSiriusJune 25, 2019 12:05 PM UTC

I had completely forgotten this movie! Coburn had considerably more experience under his belt since his great In Like Flint movies or appearances in Combat, Perry Mason, Twilight Zone and Route 66, among others. I like the notion of him striking fear in the heart of Heston. Anything that puts Heston on the run is great in my book.

He was on every TV western there was when we were kids. I get the message and where you're going but Coburn is like Miles Davis' Inamorata' masculinity. This is some tough jazz for most people, hang in their for the narration. You'll dig it. Sound off like you got a pair.
responds:June 26, 2019 8:09 AM UTC

Coburn's performances in Cross of Iron and Hard Times are up there with this.