Review: Tom Horn

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

There are so many bad signs on Tom Horn going in, and so many holes to overleap while watching it, the marvel is that it lingers in the mind as a rather ingratiating picture. Right away one distrusts a movie with a director-for-hire from TV and a superstar for executive producer, especially when that superstar has been having a tetchy time of it, professionally and personally, the last few years. The cowriting credit for Tom McGuane both arouses hopeful interest (funky Montana flavor) and prepares one to expect another exercise in slewfooted, brokenbacked narrative (on the evidence of 92 in the Shade, The Missouri Breaks and – oh, let’s give him the delightful Rancho Deluxe). It is hard to guess which way Tom Horn is going to jump next, and the uncertainty is not attributable to spunky, uncontainable vitality: McQueen & co. just appear to have changed their minds from one act to the next, as to just what sort of movie they wanted Tom Horn to be and, for that matter, what sort of movie- or Western-hero they wanted Tom Horn to be.

Early on, he’s a funky jasper who admits to having been a great scout and the bringer-in of Geronimo, but would prefer not to press the point if it means getting his face kicked in by somebody bigger than he; this is your basic post-Altman, revisionist, pragmatist hero, suitable for knowing endorsement by anyone in the audience who has known all along that those macho heroes of Hollywood legend were a load of horseshit. Then he’s the Westerner as true friend to those who are true to him, and a damn good hand with a gun. Then he’s the implacable stock detective – translation: contract rustler-killer, Missouri Breaks-style – remorselessly doing the bidding of the capitalist power elite. Then the capitalist power elite sell him out and he’s your archetypal martyr to The System, so simon-pure in his integrity that he won’t venture a commonsense defense of himself when framed for a capital crime. Part of the point of Tom Horn – or what ends up serving as point, possibly in default of any other – is that no one can be quite sure from the vantage of today just who and what Tom Horn was. Moreover, it’s conceivable that Tom Horn could have been all, or at least several, of the abovementioned fellows without rupturing the skin of a single identity. But it would take a script and a film under more assured hands than any operating here to bring such a multivalenced concept off. This particular movie is a shambles, and just to compound the difficulty, there is one more Tom Horn: Tom Horn the manly but whimsical lover, who carries on an oddball romance, and a running dialogue about values, with this strongwilled schoolmarm from Hawaii (it’s a true story) – and this relationship is told partially out of sequence, intercut as memory-flashbacks-cum-wish-fantasy with the final scenes of Tom’s incarceration. One can’t help wondering at just what stage in the production that narrative sequence was hit upon – during the gestation of the screenplay, or much later in the day when somebody asked, “Say, Steve, what are we gonna do with those Linda Evans scenes?”

The film is equally lacking in organic control on a visual level. Nominal director William Wiard does not appear to have been in charge (in a recent interview Elisha Cook mentions that his own scenes were done with McQueen himself directing), and certified cinematographic superstar John A. Alonzo has taken the opportunity to grandstand only a little less lavishly than Vittorio Storaro did on Agatha. Lots of pretty pictures of Big Sky bleakness here; but even in this stylistic region Tom Horn retains an ornery raggedness: there are a pair of continuity-fudging sunsets that seem to be the selfsame shot – a freezeframe, yet, with a snarl of gate-hair on it! Now, that kind of haplessness midst such a welter of superstar self-indulgence is almost endearing. And so, in virtually all of his incarnations of Horn, is Steve McQueen, who has aged into a more appealing presence than Steve McQueen has been since any time since, oh, the early Sixties. Throw in the splendid Richard Farnsworth as the straightest-dealing of the range bosses, Billy Green Bush as a Horn counterpart with a cannier sense of survival in the changing West, Slim Pickens and Chuck Hayward as a couple of lawmen rather ashamed of their jobs by the time Mr. Horn takes the drop, and you’ve got a lot to recommend this movie despite all its deficiencies. Tom Horn lacks formal integrity in a big way, yet as the casting and performances of the foregoing gentlemen suggest, it is a movie with a continuing interest in character. That holds it together while it plays, makes it glow in the memory out of proportion to its faults, and qualifies it as a sympathetic rarity in the era of clone movies.

© 1981 Richard T. Jameson

TOM HORN
Direction: William Wiard. Screenplay: Thomas McGuane and Bud Shrake, after Life of Tom Horn, Government Scout and Interpreter, Written by Himself. Cinematography: John Alonzo. Art direction: Ron Hobbs. Editing: George Grenville. Music: Ernest Gold. Production: Fred Weintraub; executive producer: Steve McQueen.
The players: Steve McQueen, Richard Farnsworth, Billy Green Bush, Linda Evans, Slim Pickens, Chuck Hayward, Elisha Cook, Geoffrey Lewis, Peter Canon, James Kline, Harry Northup, Roy Jenson, Bill Thurman.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.