“Flushin’ cows out of this timber is like tryin’ to teach an elephant to use a typewriter.”
Yup, we got us a Western–and a strange hybrid of a Western, at that–improbably directed by that master of metropolitan intrigue and mayhem, Alan J. Pakula (Presumed Innocent, The Parallax View).
WWII is wrapping up, but the fight goes on for poor Ella Connors (Jane Fonda, The Chase), struggling to keep the cattle ranch her daddy passed onto her from going into arrears. Aside from a mountain of debt, this tuff-as-nails, go-it-alone-type gal has a sparse herd scattered among the woods and only kindly, near-to-retiring Dodger (Richard Farnsworth, The Straight Story) to help her rustle ’em up.
Despite Ella’s extreme hardships with it, her land is of prime interest to competing factions: next door neighbor and former lover J.W. Ewing (Jason Robards, Julia) wants it to run his own cattle across, while Neil Atkinson (George Grizzard, Advise and Consent) of Atko Oil wants to bring in his geologists to do some testing.
One of these explains that “the characteristics of this valley are almost identical to what we found in other parts of this state, where there are already substantial oil fields in production. Why, there could be a lot of wealth in here.” Unfortunately though, the exact location on which to drill can’t be pinpointed without making a more complete seismic record. Ella’s no fool; she’s seen other places where they’ve drilled for oil and the damage they’ve done to the surrounding land while searching for the right spot to rig–No sir, no sale.
And though she’d just as soon cut off her own left arm as give up an inch of her spread to Ewing, her dire straits have compelled Ella to sell off a chunk of property to Frank (James Caan, The Glory Guys) and Billy Joe (Mark Harmon, NCIS), a pair of army buddies just back in country and looking to raise some beeves of their own. Their dreams are shattered by a night-time raid that puts a bullet into Frank’s chest and kills Billy Joe–though in fairness, the kid pretty much did himself in, playing Harmonica, like he was–Heck, everybody knows what happens to young, wistful soldier boys who blow mouth harps, right?
Comes A Horseman covers plenty of well-trod territory. Alongside the stock characters, there’s the Wrath-of-God stormy night that spooks the herd into stampeding; the sweetheart’s dance; the bar fight and the barn fire, deliberately set by the greedy land baron’s hired thugs. The screenplay, by former costume designer Dennis Lynton Clark (A Man Called Horse), features some pretty clever dialogue–some of it too clever by half–stitching together this patchwork quilt of shop-worn situations. And that sense you’ve been here before is only strengthened by Michael Small’s score, which can most charitably be categorized as an homage to composer Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven, True Grit, The Shootist).
None of this necessarily constitutes a hanging matter, mind you. Steeped as they are in the lore and traditions particular to the genre, many legendary big screen westerns have succeeded mightily while coloring inside the lines, while many of the genre’s legendary turkeys paid the price of trying to subvert its conventions. Zachariah, anyone? How about The Terror of Tiny Town, or Billy the Kid vs. Dracula? Anyone? Anyone?!
To its eternal credit, Comes A Horseman benefits exceedingly from its casting, and given his reputation as “an actor’s director,” Pakula deserves credit for, at the very least, finding just the right people for the jobs. More than mere mega-watt movie stars, Caan and Fonda (who won her first Oscar for Pakula’s Klute) transcend the Elvis Presley-Shelley Fabares trajectory the script maps out for their characters to create the kind of magic energy–in the film’s quieter moments–that can only be conjured by terrifically skilled actors. And who better than Robards (who won his first Oscar for Pakula’s cinematic translation of All The President’s Men) to personify suave and charismatic evil with subtle implications of unbridled blood lust and lechery? Though less celebrated, the lamentably underrated Grizzard more than holds his own amongst this distinguished company, as does veteran character Malcolm McCalman (Deliverance) in the thankless role of a malevolent milquetoast banker.
Of course, it was then fifty nine year old Farnsworth, a former stuntman and bit player, who emerged as the production’s brightest star, going on to snag the first of his two Oscar nominations–and the only one this film earned. What can be said, but that from the moment he first appears, Comes A Horseman perks up considerably and that it never quite recovers following his exit? Of the eight Oscar-nominated performances guided by Pakula over the course of his directorial career, Farnworth’s may very well be the most special of all.
Unfortunately, Pakula allows the pace of Comes A Horseman to slacken so that it often feels like watching the paint dry on cinematographer Gordon Willis’ gorgeous, panoramic cinematography. These include the majestic, wide open spaces that Bing Crosby once crooned so lovingly about on “Don’t Fence Me In,” and master lens man Willis (The Godfather) makes them look as breath-takingly beautiful as they’re ever likely to be, but how many long takes of stunt-people (doubling for Fonda and Caan) a-ridin’ and a-ropin’ does one film need? A helluva lot fewer than them that crowd this one, that’s for damned sure.
Adding insult to injury, Twilight Time’s 2.35:1/1080p Blu-ray transfer of Comes A Horseman features quite a bit of wear and tear. I wouldn’t say that the speckling (while certainly noticeable) irreparably harms the viewing experience, but on the other hand, there’s a startling degree of it, in comparison to the many other releases I’ve seen from this boutique label. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono track fares better, but hardly qualifies as dynamic. Optional English SDH subtitles are available.
Bonus features are particularly bare-boned for this set: An isolated score audio track, the considerably aged original theatrical trailer, and TT’s standard-issue color photo-stocked booklet with an especially fine essay by Julie Kirgo. As with most Twilight Time releases, this one’s limited to a pressing of 3,000 copies.
Not so much a failure as a misfire, Comes A Horseman finds one of America’s finest film makers– just consider the triumphant leap he made from sophisticated romantic comedy Starting Over (1980) to that mother of all heart breakers, Sophie’s Choice, only two years later– in over his head. Recommended for those with forgiveness and patience.
Not too guilty.