My records tell me I saw this film at the old London Pavilion on Piccadilly Circus in May 1979. The cinema was United Artists’ West End flagship house. I have always loved ‘Contemporary Westerns’ and I do remember this had very beautiful cinematography by Gordon Willis (which I think did prompt a 70mm print at some point). But I couldn’t remember much else, except that I was a big Alan J. Pakula fan and I would have been attracted by Jane Fonda and Jason Robards. I wasn’t a big James Caan fan and I think I had forgotten he was in it, although I now note that he is top-billed above Fonda. I have probably underestimated what he contributes to the film because he does provide an ideal partner for Fonda in this context. I was clearly too young in 1979 and not able to appreciate this fine movie. Watching it now, I can see it is a great piece of work. The film had been largely forgotten in the UK until the BFI released a Blu-ray in 2019 and this is what I’ve been studying this week.
The narrative begins with the return to the US of two GIs who have decided not to re-enlist in 1945. They have bought a small piece of land from rancher Ella Connors (Jane Fonda) in a seemingly peaceful valley in the Rockies (perhaps meant to be Montana, though filmed in Colorado and Arizona)) but within the first few minutes of the narrative they have been picked off by a sniper. One of them is killed instantly but Frank (‘Buck’) Athern (James Caan) survives and will end up being cared for by Ella and her single hand, ‘Dodger’ (Richard Farnsworth). Ella is quite curt with Frank and her care is just the bare necessity. But when he can ride again Frank and Ella come to an understanding. He will work with her, but not for her. She doesn’t really have a choice. J.W. Ewing (Jason Robards) is the rancher who wants the whole valley and has been trying to get Ella out for years. He’ll stop at nothing as the shooting of Frank and his partner has proved. Ella needs Frank’s help to get together a big enough herd of cattle to sell in the Autumn and retain her ownership of the land. That’s the basic plot.
The narrative does offer us quite lengthy sequences of the skills of Ella, Frank and Dodger in finding cattle in the woods on the slopes, roping and branding them and corralling them for market, all shot by Willis with the action filling the ‘Scope screen. A sub-plot, but an important one, sees interest in the valley by an oil company which threatens both Ella and Ewing. Essentially though this is a narrative about land and commitment to it, the will to win through hard work and courage and the refusal to be beaten down by superior force. In parallel is the potential romance between Ella and Frank. Ewing has a role in this as well.
The script is by Dennis Lynton Clark from his own original story. It appears to be his only cinema film script but he wrote two others for TV movies and he worked as Production Designer, Costume Designer or Art director on a few other films. The music score is by Michael Small and the film editor is Marion Rothman both experienced filmmakers, Small having worked on Pakula films earlier in the decade. This was certainly a prestige picture. Caan in the late 1970s was still to some extent coasting on his Godfather role from 1971 but he had other hits including Freebie and the Bean (1974), Rollerball (1975) and Funny Lady (1975). Fonda was at the peak of her career, winning an Oscar for Klute (1971, directed by Pakula) and box office success for Julia (1977) and Coming Home (1977) plus featuring for Jean Luc Godard in Tout va bien (1972) and making several independent films. In the early 1970s she was also a political activist, famously visiting Hanoi (like several other Americans) and being attacked by the US media. She was for me the star of Comes a Horseman. Jason Robards in 1978 was a successful ‘star actor’ and for me he was a distinctive figure in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and in two Peckinpah films, The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). In 1976 he had played Ben Bradlee in Pakula’s adaptation of All the President’s Men. He won two Oscars for Best Supporting Actor for All the President’s Men and for Julia as support to Fonda. The surprise package in the casting was Richard Farnsworth, who as Dodger was Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actor. He had first been a stuntman and then a bit part player in Westerns. In Comes a Horseman he ‘plays older’. He was only 58 but looks and acts like someone ten years older.
In terms of cast and crew and creative filmmakers this was a great package of talent. But the film didn’t work at the box office and audiences stayed away. Why? Many reviewers criticised it as too long (118 minutes) and perhaps because of that, too slow. It had a brief burst of action at the beginning and an action-packed finale but in between typical entertainment expected in a Western was severely limited. And anyway were Westerns still a popular genre in 1978? In terms of Pakula’s cinema as director (he was a successful producer for Robert Mulligan films in the 1960s), he was known for his three ‘paranoia thrillers’ Klute, Parallax View and All the President’s Men. He had produced a Western, The Stalking Moon (1968) with Gregory Peck and Eva Marie Saint, but that had been seen as ‘stolid’ and ‘not exciting’. In retrospect, Comes a Horseman is a Western romantic melodrama. But it also has elements the psychological thriller and its setting sometimes suggests ‘American Gothic’. For me the pacing wasn’t a problem.
There is just one scene in town with a bar-room brawl, otherwise the narrative takes place on Ella’s ranch or in Ewing’s Victorian mansion. With so few characters it’s inevitable that the narrative is constructed around their hopes and fears. I note that Phil Hardy in his Encyclopedia of Western Movies (1985) hails the film as a ‘major Western’ but suggests that it is imbued with some of the paranoia of Pakula’s previous films and also the sense of loss and potential renewal that underpins the Spring of 1945. The war is only introduced directly in perhaps three scenes. In the opening, Ewing is attending the burial of his son with a military salute on his ranch – a distinctly John Ford image. Later the oil man Neil Atkinson (George Grizzard) will refer to the race to Berlin and the fear that the Russians will get there before the Americans and then in a later scene, he will argue that oil will be needed for the economic growth in post-war America. However, I now realise that Frank is possibly suffering from some form of PTSD, although he controls it well.)
The Gothic sense in the film comes from both Ewing’s and Ella’s sense of their family’s history in the valley – and their personal history which goes back to Ella’s late teenage years. Visually the two houses are significant. Ewing’s large Victorian Gothic mansion has a wide staircase from which Ewing makes statements. I couldn’t help but think of Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar (1954) looking down from her balcony at the men below. Ella’s house, by contrast is a simple wooden ranch house with two storeys, a typical building in the West on the plains. Its importance to Ella as her father’s house is emphasised when Ella can’t resist caressing a model of the house – her doll’s house made by her father? – as she searches in her loft. This house will become the location for the final climactic scenes of the film.
The romance between Ella and Frank develops slowly. Initially Ella is so prickly and tough, steeling herself to fight Ewing, that she builds a carapace around herself and keeps Frank at a distance. Later when it happens the emotional and sexual relationship seems quite natural. The key scene is perhaps another Fordian moment, when the couple attend a dance on the open plain which calls to mind the famous scene in My Darling Clementine with Henry Fonda and Cathy Downs. For Ella, the scene is marked by her change of costume. For once she swaps the jeans, boots and Western shirt for a blouse with puff sleeves, a long colourful skirt and her long hair loose and free. Where her father in 1946 was stiff and formal, she is now able to dance more freely. Willis and Pakula then have Ewing on horseback on a rise looking down on the lights of the dance far below. The dance comes as part of the celebrations for the cattle round-up and the anticipation of a good sale of stock.
The twist in the conventional Western tale of the big rancher claiming the whole valley by pushing his smaller rival into bankruptcy comes in the form of the oilman and the banker. Ewing’s aim is to control the valley as his grandfather had done. Unfortunately ranching has not been as profitable in the 20th century as it was at the end of the 19th. Ewing is in hock to the banks just as much as Ella. I’m thinking now that this film does have a link to the structure of the Twilight Western – Ewing is the character who cannot move forward, he can only look back. Ella, by default, looks forward because she now has Frank to work with and the narrative’s resolution is conventional in suggesting the possibility of a new beginning.
The BFI Blu-ray does not feature a restoration, but the print is well presented and there are several extras, including a commentary by the English writer Scott Harrison. I haven’t listened to all of it so I don’t want to critique what he says, though I suspect we don’t share the same ideas about the Western. But he has done his research and he offers background to the production and reception of the film. He makes the point that because Star Wars had been released a year earlier, films like Comes a Horseman were already somehow ‘out of date’ and likely to fail. The transition from ‘New Hollywood’ or what some call the ‘American New Wave’ to the era of the high concept blockbuster is a topic for a big discussion. I just want to make two points. Comes a Horseman does not feature children/young people or even typical families. It’s a film for adult audiences. Secondly, as a filmmaker, Pakula sits alongside Peckinpah and Penn, not only through alliteration but because they bridge the last the days of the studio system and into the New Hollywood period, but with a different approach and set of concerns compared to those of Spielberg and Lucas post 1975. Harrison on his commentary also picks out a typical American review of Comes a Horseman which blames the failure of the film at the box office partly on Jane Fonda’s activism, as if the audiences don’t want to see her because of her image as ‘Hanoi Jane’ in the 1970s. Or perhaps it is that Fonda was becoming the woman who having turned 40 in 1977 was still building her career rather than accepting that she would be pushed into character roles. I think she is very good in the film. Her career has taken several twists and turns since the early 1980s but she’s still working today in her eighties.
James Caan is fine in the role of Frank/Buck and Jason Robards is as good as the script allows him to be. The film is really about the Fonda character. There are no other women in the cast. What happened to Ewing’s wife, I wonder? For a film deemed a failure, though it made $10 million in North America, I found Comes a Horseman both a pleasure to watch and an interesting example of a Contemporary Western to complement my recent viewings of The Lusty Men and The Power of the Dog. As well as the Blu-ray, the film is also avaiable on several of the usual streaming services in the UK.