Continuing my investigations into Contemporary and/or ‘twilight’ Westerns, I remembered this Sydney Pollack film from 1979 which I saw on release in the UK in 1980, at the Elephant and Castle ABC. What I had remembered mostly when I watched it again recently was the use of Willie Nelson’s songs. I did remember images of Robert Redford in a sequinned rodeo outfit riding his horse along freeways and over mountains. But that’s about all. I think I must be mellowing in my old age because I’m sure I enjoyed the film more the second time around, even though its flaws and conceits are even more glaring now. At the time, I’m sure I agreed with Western scholars such as Phil Hardy that it was a weak Western, especially given its star power and the backing of two studios, Columbia and Universal. But now I see that it is an interesting film in the way it mixes elements from different genres and utilises its stars’ personae. It makes a useful study object because it avoids the usual structure of a twilight Western. But overall the narrative is weak.
Billed as a ‘comedy-drama’ on IMDb The Electric Horseman stars Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in a film directed by producer-turned-director Sydney Pollack, who had worked with both stars before. The plot outline is is almost comically simple. Redford is ‘Sonny’ Steele, five times national rodeo champ who is now reduced to working for the giant Ampco company promoting its breakfast cereal ‘Ranch Breakfast – 100% Natural Cereal’. Sonny now appears at the bottom of the bill in sequins and lights in local rodeo shows. Willie Nelson plays his manager trying to keep Sonny on his horse and stop him escaping into an alcoholic haze. The crunch comes when Ampco holds a big promotional event in Las Vegas where Sonny is simply required to ride his horse onto the stage in Caesar’s Palace. The horse he rides is worth much more than Sonny – it’s a thoroughbred champion worth $12 million as bloodstock. It’s the last straw for Sonny. He hears that the horse is being doped in order to face the bright lights and he mounts only to ride straight out of Las Vegas, heading for the hills with Ampco operatives and the police in hot pursuit. Ace reporter/TV presenter Hallie Martin (Jane Fonda) is quick to dig around and work out where Sonny might be going. She finds him and they go on the run together, hoping to free the horse to join a group of wild mustangs in the Rockies. Sonny and Hallie fall in love. Ampco see sales of the cereal increase as the story of the chase unfolds. A happy ending of sorts wraps it all up.
It isn’t difficult to spot references to several other films and in particular the sequence in which Sonny escapes Las Vegas is reminiscent of Lonely Are the Brave (1962) in which Kirk Douglas rides his horse across the freeway and later heads for the hills. The difference here is that there is money to spend on chase sequences. When Sonny escapes capture by the police he rides ‘Rising Star’, as the horse is known, around the back gardens and yards of a small town and then races the cops along country roads in an exciting and at times comical chase in which police cars and motorbikes can’t match the skill of the rider and the prowess and athleticism of the horse. The chase might also be linked to to a similar but definitely comic sequence in which Robert Preston and Steve McQueen as father and son ex-rodeo champs in Junior Bonner (1972) ride around the backstreets of Prescott Arizona on the same horse until they are thrown off after getting caught in a washing line.
As the chase is extended the narrative takes on aspects of the road movie as Sonny and Hallie and the horse set off across the mountains. Here again scenes are quite familiar, especially as Redford had previously starred in films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969), both with mountain treks and chases. The difference, however, is the presence of Hallie Martin as a journalist. As she and Sonny are forced to cross the mountains on foot, leading Rising Star, they will argue and play through the conflict between journalist and cowboy loner until they begin to fall in love. The last section of the narrative at least offers us the chance of romance, but it also reminds us of similar set-ups such as that between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) in which Gable is the reporter latching on to Colbert’s wealthy runaway heiress. Here again the Capra connection points to another theme, that of Sonny as populist hero. Hallie is able at an early stage to make a TV broadcast and Sonny becomes a figure representing resistance to corporations and the freedom of the open range – although the narrative can’t quite square this with the increased sales of Rancho Breakfast Cereal. Why aren’t people boycotting the product?
The other aspect of the film is the way it ties into the ‘activist’ roles of the the two stars. This period is peak Fonda. In the same year she made The China Syndrome, another film in which she is the journalist who attempts to uncover safety breaches at a nuclear plant. A year earlier in Coming Home she built on her anti-war stance in a romantic melodrama featuring returning Vietnam War soldiers. She was also in the process of becoming a figure at the centre of the rise of feminist ideas in mainstream Hollywood and a year later would have one of her biggest hits in 9 to 5 alongside Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin. Redford meanwhile had his own hits as a radical journalist in All the President’s Men and the ‘ordinary worker’ caught up in the conspiracy of Three Days of the Condor (1975). It would be later perhaps that he would be identified with the sense of the ecological problems caused by the exploitation of natural resources in the US, which in retrospect makes his speeches about freeing Rising Star in this film more resonant. More generally perhaps this film, with its adoption of three Willie Nelson songs associated with ‘Outlaw Country’, plugs into a growing trend in Hollywood at this point of focusing on resistance to ‘corporate America’ and fighting back against control over ‘personal freedoms’, epitomised perhaps by Convoy, the Peckinpah film about truckers the previous year.
Fonda and Redford were stars in the 1970s and audiences responded to the possibility of romance, ignoring the critics. Pollack was generally successful in finding his audience but not perhaps extending the possibilities of the genre. It’s interesting that both stars also worked with Alan J. Pakula, the other ‘producer turned director’ in the the 1970s. Pakula had the opposite problem. His thoughtful films were often more interesting but also perhaps less likely to please audiences. As regards the ‘twilight Western’, this film doesn’t offer us the two male characters with different views on how to respond to the decline of the West. Instead we get Redford as the cowboy in a sense fighting for his culture but really perhaps simply escaping from the struggle. The ‘modernising’ character is now the woman who is already part of the modern world but now perhaps understands what might be being lost. My disappointment is that the characters who might have offered a different perspective such as Willie Nelson’s manager figure are allowed to fade into the background. I’d like to post a trailer but all those on offer seem woeful now. Overall a missed opportunity I think but I still like the songs and the central performances.
Somehow not a key film for any of the talents involved, but I think you’re right to exhume this. With plenty of card carrying activists involved, Electric Horseman does seem to preach to the converted and draw out the Western mythology into the 80’s, which turned out to be a barren period beyond Silverado and Barbarossa. But star power and songs keep this watchable, even if it wasn’t what audiences wanted at the time, which was considerably worse.
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