A renowned former army scout is hired by ranchers to hunt down rustlers but finds himself on trial for the murder of a boy when he carries out his job too well. Tom Horn finds that the ... See full summary »
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A renowned former army scout is hired by ranchers to hunt down rustlers but finds himself on trial for the murder of a boy when he carries out his job too well. Tom Horn finds that the simple skills he knows are of no help in dealing with the ambitions of ranchers and corrupt officials as progress marches over him and the old west. Written by
Keith Loh <email@example.com>
William Goldman wrote an early version of the screenplay, with Don Siegel attached as director. Siegel dropped out after disagreements with Steve McQueen (whom Goldman found to be extremely eccentric), and Goldman's script, which McQueen rejected, was later the basis for the TV movie, "Mr. Horn" (1979). This was rushed into production to compete with this film, making it onto the airways several months ahead of the film's much-delayed release. See more »
The rifle Steve McQueen uses in the film is a Winchester Model 1876, stated to be chambered in .45-60 Winchester, however, the rifle was actually chambered in .45-75 Winchester. The real life Tom Horn carried a Winchester Model 1894 chambered in .30-30 Winchester. See more »
The film is distinctive in four ways, the first being that Steve McQueen finally returned to the screen after having spent the 1970s elsewhere. He was a bounty hunter in the late 1950s on television, then jumped to prominence in "The Magnificent Seven" about 1960 and spent the next ten years as a dominant force on-screen. So this film was a "comeback." But McQueen came back as an artist, not as a cartoon version of his earlier self. His portrayal of Tom Horn does not use close-ups, quick draws or choreographed violence. The second thing that stands out here is the subject of the film, which is frontier justice on the high plains, a rough subject to be sure. "Tom Horn" (1980) is the first movie since "Shane" (1953) to deal realistically with the subject a part of which treatment is using the countryside itself as a character. There were a lot of movies beginning in the late 1960s with Clint Eastwood's "spaghetti westerns" which focused on the grisly righteousness of law enforcement, but it wasn't until Eastwood's "Unforgiven" (1998) that he finally made a movie that approached the quality of "Shane" and "Tom Horn," and employed some panoramic camera work. Third, the way the story is told is unfamiliar to most modern movie fans because it is so old, traditional and specific to the northern plains. The story is told, by veteran Western director Wiard, in the same way author Albert White Eagle tells stories, as a montage of contrasting fragments often out of chrnonolgical order -- "oh, by the way, I forget to tell you something, let me tack it on now" -- the juxtaposition of which fragments imply the surreal ambience of the times, an ambience which could not be effectively shown using the usual plot devices, cinematic close-ups, narrative summaries and chronological markers. For example, we see Tom in a jail cell looking at the clouds outside the little window, then we see him, with the same clouds in the sky behind him, shooting a young man (uncredited actor Sonny Skyhawk) who tries to kill the school marm as she bathes in the horse trough while talking with Tom. Is this something that really happened before he was locked up, or is it a fantasy or dream born of incarceration? It doesn't matter whether the scene is real or imagined, what matters is the jolt we receive by seeing it out of sequence. Most directors would have either shown Tom going to sleep in the cell, thus implying the scene was a dream, or would have had some narrative dialogue which indicated that Tom was remembering something that had really transpired. But Wiard, throughout the film, uses that northern technique. Another example is when we are visually escorted out of a scene in which Tom kills a rustler, with beautiful mountains in the background, into one where he is breaking a horse for the schoolmarm to eventually ride -- the same mountains are in the background, unchanged. A final thing about this movie was actor Richard Farnsworth. This was the first movie in which he had considerable dialogue, and was given a chance to demonstrate his skill at characterization. He plays John Coble, Tom Horn's employer. At the end of the movie is a 1904 quote from Coble, saying that that Tom was not guilty of the crime of which he was accused and convicted. This quotation, as Western researchers know, is from Coble's suicide note. And it foreshadowed Farnsworth's sucide twenty-two years later, a few months after being nominated, finally, for an Academy Award for his brilliant portrayal in "The Straight Story." McQueen, on-screen, and Farnsworth, on-screen and off, epitomized that quality of the Westerner least understood by people in the rest of the nation. The real Tom Horn said, "The people in the Northeast hire us to protect them from the people in the South," and, "We find the thing, whatever it is, then somebody else gets the glory for bringing it down, and somebody else makes the money for taking it back to the folks in town," but "You can either laugh or cry at your fate, and that's not much of a choice, is it, pardner?" The droll stocism and sardonic wit of the cowboy, and the western tracker whether white or Indian, has always enchanted and mystified the rest of the nation, and never really been understood. The movie, "Tom Horn," is a fitting tribute to the history and people of the northern plains, to Steve McQueen's artistry, to the memory of Richard Farnsworth, and to stories that are not easy to tell.
w. t. benda
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