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Soldier, Indian tracker, lawman, outlaw, hired killer - there are about
a half dozen movies that could be made about Tom Horn, so it's
surprising that it wasn't until the Western was on its last legs that,
aside from the odd fleeting appearance in B-movies, he finally made it
to the big screen. In some ways it's amazing he made it at all. 1980's
Tom Horn was a troubled picture, and that's putting it mildly. Sam
Peckinpah was at one time tapped to direct, but he fell out with star
and producer Steve McQueen before shooting started possibly
literally, since McQueen's alleged response to a furious argument they
had in the car one evening led to McQueen insisting he get out without
bothering to stop first. Neither Don Siegel nor Elliot Silverstein made
it past pre-production. Electra Glide in Blue director James Guercio
only lasted for the first three days of the shoot, and cinematographer
John Alonzo and McQueen himself also had a hand in the finished film at
one point or another, with credited director William Wiard apparently
hired only to placate the Directors Guild when they wouldn't allow the
star to direct himself. The screenplay went through many changes along
the route as well, with Thomas McGuane's 450-page epic being constantly
chipped away, Abraham Polonsky's rewrite being rejected and Bud
Shrake's final script eventually alternating with McGuane's depending
on which version the star felt like filming that day. And just to add
to the good news, the picture suffered from major budget cuts due to
studio politics and the threat of a William Goldman-scripted Robert
Redford rival project (eventually made for TV with David Carradine as
Mr Horn), shrinking from a three-hour $10m epic about the Indian
tracker and interpreter's life to a $3m small-scale Western about its
Under such circumstances it would be wildly optimistic to expect the film to be even watchable, let alone great, but somehow it bucked the odds to come out as a bona fide forgotten classic. While there's no shortage of action in the first half of the movie certainly enough for the studio to somewhat misleadingly sell it as an action movie this is really a much more elegiac Western about the end of an era seen through the fate of a man out of his time and trapped by a reputation he cannot really live up to anymore. "If you really knew how dirty and raggedy-assed the Old West was, you wouldn't want any part of it," he tells Linda Evans schoolteacher, and the ailing McQueen makes no attempt to disguise just how raggedy he looks himself. When we first meet Horn it's not long before he's on the losing end of a fight with champion boxer" Gentleman Jim" Corbett, and after a brief and all-too successful career disposing of rustlers for the local Cattlemen's Association, soon finds himself set up for an even bigger fall when his ruthless efficiency becomes something of a public relations disaster for them.
Taking its lead from Horn's own autobiography, dictated while on trial for murder, there is an element of print the legend to it: whereas the real Horn was undone by his own egotism (his claim to have captured Geronimo seems largely fantasy, though he was one of the trackers involved in the campaign), McQueen's Horn is a simple man, modest, inarticulate, awkward in social situations and only really good at killing, which he regards simply as his job. But there's a striking lack of vanity to the performance, with McQueen not afraid to look a shrunken figure long past his prime - even his futile escape attempt feels almost half-hearted, something he feels he's expected to do, and there's a sense of acceptance of his impending death as he makes his inevitable way to the water-triggered gallows that he springs himself because nobody else wants to pull the lever on him.
(Curiously lawman Joe LeFors, whose dubious testimony sealed Horn's fate, is renamed LaSalle in the film, possibly because McQueen didn't want the audience to make any connections with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which was a one-time McQueen project that helped his rival Robert Redford become a superstar: McQueen certainly knew how to hold a grudge.) The scars of the troubled production do sometimes show, not least in a flashback so abrupt everyone in the theatres thought they'd got the reels in the wrong order, but the strengths more than compensate, not least among them an effortlessly superb supporting performance from Richard Farnsworth, who manages to create a convincing on screen bond with McQueen despite their off screen history (the young McQueen had got Farnsworth fired from Wanted: Dead or Alive when the veteran was still a stuntman). The cold, stark look of the film, it's town either muddy or snowbound, its ranges barren and desolate, and Ernest Gold's brooding score also catch the mood of impending death all too well. The Hunter may have been McQueen's last film, but in many ways this is the more fitting epitaph.
Directed by William Wiard and based on a true story, "Tom Horn" opens
in 1901, in Wyoming, where McQueen meets John C. Coble (Richard
Farnsworth) who offered him to ease up at his place for a while
accepted, but he said I'd to earn my keep
Seeing Horn with great ability with a rifle, and after speaking with the Association, John asks him to eliminate the rustlers who have completely wiped out their herd profits not to mention what the buzzards and the predators have done to their cash crops
But after one incident has disturbed the Association in town, and the rustling has stopped, they determined to get rid of Horn forgetting he was only doing what they hired him to do Mc Queen plays well the Indian tracker "scared to death of lobster, the man of the West "afraid to lose his freedom and not be able to get back up in those hills again."
Linda Evans is appealing as the school teacher from Hawaii who saw a man of the Old West trying to live in the New
Richard Farnsworth is the loyal friend John C. Coble who was quite sure that Tom never killed that kid John advices him not to try to break out of the jail He knows he can do it, but it's just admitting his guilt if he tries
Billy Green Bush is the U.S. Marshal Joe Belle who asks the newspaperman to sit behind the door and write lying down what he hears real good
Slims Pickens is the old Sheriff Sam Creed who arrested Tom
With a legendary hero, great photography and good direction "Tom Horn" is very good Western to watch
As a McQueen fan I was somewhat disappointed in the film, but at the
same time McQueen was ill, but proved that he could stick with a
project to the finish. At least this version was more realistic than
the David Carradine version "Mr. Horn", which was released in 1979.
McQueen's version had a little more historical integrity than the
latter version, and was more committed to telling the truth.
McQueen was always a physical actor, and especially in private as one of Bruce Lee's favorite Jeet Kune Do students, the others being James Coburn and Kareem Abdul Jabar. During the scene when Tom Horn escapes and is running from the deputies, I felt that McQueen was giving it his all, and that he knew his time was short, "so why not show the fans I've still got it?" The way he was gasping for air, and just gave up running made me think he wasn't acting, and however he felt after that take hurt me just the same watching it.
So let's not totally ignore what McQueen was trying to do. Even in "The Hunter", which was to go out in a blaze of glory. At that time in 1980, and his condition maybe that was the best he could give us. Still he gave of himself as an actor, an artist, and a professional right when the average guy couldn't, but we all know he wasn't the average guy. So let's give credit to "Tom Horn" where it's due, to it's star, who didn't want to let us down; by simply showing us he could still get in front of the camera and grace us simply with his presence.
I often wonder how pre video audiences were able to take in the full effect
and minor nuances of films as we can today. Watching a film again and again
allows one to really study the work and pick up the director's deep intent
for character and plot.
Watching Tom Horn a few times allows one to see that it really is a good movie. And after more than 20 years in motion pictures, McQueen finally just fits into his role, and does not "act" or play Steve McQueen.
The first scenes are excellent. McQueen establishes his character as a man who knows, and has seen most of, what the west is about. He knows who he is, and what he's accomplished, so he doesn't need to brag. The way he virtually walks into a fight in the bar with the pompous British fighter and his manager is superb. "Well, if he ain't won the fight yet, then he ain't the champ yet" is delivered with believable aplomb. When he says the guy's mother would have to stand on his shoulders just to kiss Geronimo's ass it is priceless. Especially good is his question "OK, if I win this fight, then does that make ME champion of the world?" He knows he is going to get his butt kicked but does all this for principle's sake. His running out the door and yelling oh s***, then throwing the plate of food at the fighter is one of the better acting sequences done anywhere.
His work as the stock detective is classic McQueen without his earlier years of mugging and panning. Good stuff.
The open spaces of this film, and Horn's subsequent incarceration gave me a feeling of freedom and claustrophobia. It worked well
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is an odd movie. It's a western, but also is like a film noir
where few people, if any, do the right things and the usual Hollywood
happy ending is non-existent. It almost leaves you depressed. In fact,
it does. Yet, I was glad to have finally seen this movie, however, even
if it was so long overdue, and think that many of the poor reviews (not
here) are unjustified.
This movie is SO Steve McQueen: a tough guy with few words, a likeble man ("Tom Horn,"the title character) who gets the job done no matter how tough the assignment; a guy the prettiest woman in town goes for and a man who gets respect of the other (good) men in town. However, unlike many of his roles, the last 20-30 minutes reveals a totally unique character, and one that is puzzling.
Viewers of this would not be blamed for yelling at the screen, imploring "Tom" to "say something in your defense! Speak up!! Tell everyone you are innocent!"
McQueen's "Horn" either is resigned to leaving the world perhaps the way he thought he should, with a shrug of his shoulders as if saying "that's the way it goes" or he's imitating Jesus Christ, who did similar when he spent his last day in kangaroo courts. He, too, wouldn't answer questions and state the obvious. To paraphrase McQueen in this story, it's like, "Hey, if you don't know who I am and what I'm all about I am by now, well....do what you gotta do."
Anyway, much of the film is a good western, nicely photographed and uniquely low-key with McQueen hired by a bunch of ranchers (an "Association") to put a stop to all the rustling that has been going on in the area recently. He does just that. In fact, he apparently does his job TOO well.
Depsite this being a quiet movie, the action scenes are quick and very violent. Yet, McQueen and many of his friends in here are so low-key it makes for a strange western....and oddly fascinating, I thought. A pity this isn't better known, especially since it was McQueen's second-to-last film before dying of cancer. He looks different, too. He doesn't look well and it must have taken some courage to make this film feeling as he did. Despite the haggard looks, underneath, it's the same old Steve.
Such a shame that the last two films Steve McQueen made didn't do very
although it was probably a lot fairer on The Hunter which had the
to be a great film, but the plot lost it way a bit. Tom Horn is considered
to be one of the last great westerns, which Unforgiven was influenced by
got the recognition that Tom Horn didn't.
The scenery is amazing especially the shot of the court with the sunset as the verdict is been given. This is such a great film, nothing more, nothing less.
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
But McQueen came back as an artist, not as a cartoon version of his
self. His portrayal of Tom Horn does not use close-ups, quick draws or
The second thing that stands out here is the subject of the film,
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
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
of "Shane" and "Tom Horn," and employed some panoramic camera
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
The story is told, by veteran Western director Wiard, in the same way
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
jail cell looking at the clouds outside the little window, then we see
with the same clouds in the sky behind him, shooting a young man
actor Sonny Skyhawk) who tries to kill the school marm as she bathes in
horse trough while talking with Tom. Is this something that really
before he was locked up, or is it a fantasy or dream born of
It doesn't matter whether the scene is real or imagined, what matters is
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,
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
for the schoolmarm to eventually ride -- the same mountains are in the
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
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
his brilliant portrayal in "The Straight Story."
McQueen, on-screen, and Farnsworth, on-screen and off, epitomized
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,
somebody else makes the money for taking it back to the folks in town,"
"You can either laugh or cry at your fate, and that's not much of a
is it, pardner?" The droll stocism and sardonic wit of the cowboy, and the
western tracker whether white or Indian, has always enchanted and
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
w. t. benda
Steve McQueen's second to last feature (followed by "The Hunter") was undeservedly neglected upon its release in 1980. Westerns still had not made a comeback, and McQueen himself had not been seen in a major commercial vehicle since "The Towering Inferno" in 1974. As Tom Horn, McQueen, then suffering from a deadly form of lung cancer that would take his life only six months after the film's release, had a fittingly poignant role as the famed scout who faces his execution (on trumped-up charges) with a quiet dignity and weary resignation. Some of the story seems muddled (did he or did he not accidentally kill a child, having mistaken it for an animal?), but McQueen's performance is strong and well worth seeing, as is the film as a whole.
Many good comments are already posted. I want to point out a few additional facts about the making of the movie that might be interesting to some. I remember reading a feature article about the making of Tom Horn in American Cinematographer or American Film or one of the other trade magazines. One technique that is very different for a major Hollywood film is that the filmmakers decided to use very little makeup on the actors in order to make the film a more realistic portrayal of life at that time. The fact that Linda Evans agreed to be photographed without makeup is a testament both to her natural beauty and her strong commitment to this film. Watch closely and you will spot many scenes where the lighting and makeup are unflattering to the actors, but the effect adds to the feel of this under-appreciated film. The costumes are also accurate for the period -- no belts (remember suspenders?), lots of wool and plenty of earth tones. In order to avoid the unpredictable weather and short summer in the location on the northern plains where the film is set, the movie was filmed in (if memory serves) Arizona. And guess what? Right in the middle of production, it snowed big-time! A quick decision had to be made whether to delay the filming or to go ahead, knowing that the snow would not last long in that climate (making continuity a problem). They decided to go for it and the shooting schedule was changed so that all outdoor snow scenes were shot over the course of a couple of days. This was a mammoth task for the crew and cast to pull off, but they managed to shoot all the outdoor scenes before the snow melted, and only had to use fake snow in a couple of street scenes. Anyway, Tom Horn was one of the first westerns to try and give a more accurate historical portrayal of the old west and that alone sets it apart from most Hollywood westerns.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
**Contains Possible Spoilers** A dramatization based on the true story of a legendary frontiersman, `Tom Horn' depicts the final years in the life of this tracker, interpreter and hero of the Apache Wars. Steve McQueen portrays Horn, who drifts into Wyoming Territory in 1901. There he makes the acquaintance of cattle rancher John Coble (Richard Farnsworth), who brings Horn's presence to the attention of the `Cattlemen's Association.' There's been an ongoing problem with rustlers, not to mention the encroachment of sheep ranchers, and the association has been endeavoring to find a solution. In Horn, whose reputation precedes him, they see the answer to their problems, much to the consternation of Marshall Joe Belle (Billy Green Bush), who feels slighted in the matter; his ego, it seems, is even more pronounced than his own reputation. They hire Horn as a `Stock Detective,' and give him free rein as to how he must deal with cattle rustlers; whether to shoot, or bring them in, is entirely up to him. In little more than a year's time, the rustling has stopped; Horn has done his job well. Too well, in fact. It seems that he's become a bit too `high profile,' and after an incident in town, during which Horn kills a man in self defense, the members of the association, as well as Joe Belle, conclude that Horn is now their biggest problem. The last thing they want is to have their names appearing in newspapers, connecting them in any way with Horn or any of the recent killings. They want to be rid of him, and for good, but they don't know how to go about it. Soon thereafter, on one of the nearby sheep ranches, a fifteen-year-old boy is shot and killed in cold blood, by a rifle shot from a distance of two hundred and thirteen yards. Though an obvious set-up, Horn is subsequently arrested, and put on trial, for the murder of the boy. McQueen gives a performance here that is nothing less than remarkable. He deftly captures the essence of the rugged, loner cowboy, with a subtle, somewhat subdued approach that gives total credibility to his character. Horn is a cowboy, a product of the old west who has spent a lifetime killing and avoiding being killed, and like so many others of his time, is merely trying to adapt to a new century, a new era. Just another guy looking for work; and this is the Tom Horn that McQueen delivers to the screen, perceptively avoiding any feigned heroics or superfluous contrivances that would have given him that sense of being larger-than-life. His Tom Horn is a proud man, without being steeped in ego; and it's that down-to-earth attitude that makes him real, and gives distinction to this film. Director William Wiard does an exceptional job of formulating an appropriate atmosphere, and maintaining it throughout the film, which underscores the stoic nature of the story. He's made a pensive, penetrating western, realistically integrating the necessary violence into the natural fabric of the story. There's nothing gratuitous here; another aspect for which Wiard should be commended, because it adds even more to the impact of the climax. With an excellent supporting cast which includes Linda Evans (Glendolene), Slim Pickens (Sam), Roy Jenson (Mendenhour) and Geoffrey Lewis (Walter Stoll), `Tom Horn' is an honest study of life during an era of change; of the politics and prevailing attitudes that contributed to the shaping of a new century. And of the individuals, who in the final analysis, made a difference. I rate this one 10/10.
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