Posted in: Westerns

Review: Comes a Horseman

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The title of Alan J Pakula’s latest film echoes the old stock melodrama line “Along comes Jones” and that’s no accident. Here we have a tough-but-tender cowgirl working her dead father’s ranch with only a lovable grizzled old coot for a ranchhand; a somber villain moving through his dark house like Dracula in his castle, hatching designs on the heroine’s land as well as her body; a land-grabbing industrialist conspiring with the local banker to turn rangeland into oil wells; a tall, quiet wrangler winning the girl’s heart and saving her land to boot; singing cowboys, fireside heart-to-hearts, a crisis with hero and heroine trapped by villain in a burning building, a climactic shootout, and boy-gets-girl. From the tentative cynicism of The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, Pakula hasreturned with a vengeance to the romantic melodrama of his earlier films, all characterized by essentially corny ideas handled in an utterly uncorny manner. Kluteand Comes a Horsemanare but two special cases of the same basic plot overlay: tough professional man saves woman from villainy and from herself, winning her heart in the process. And The Sterile Cuckoo, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing, Klute, andComes a Horsemanmay all be seen as variations on the theme of simple, direct man dealing with complex, independent woman.

Comes a Horseman,recalling as it does the stock elements of Republic’s program westerns, and even the Universal horse operas of the silent period, is the most blatantly cliché-ridden of the four, and consequently the greatest and most daring triumph for Pakula. His approach is so original that one scarcely notices the triteness of the plot-particulars except in retrospect. The delight of the film lies not only in Pakula’s recognition of what makes a cliché an archetype, and what he does with his film’s archetypal content, but also in the sheer audacity of the Pakula style. That style seems increasingly to be the work of the strong stock company Pakula has built up: Jenkins on design, Willis at the camera, and Small at the keyboard. Here, Jenkins’s design is faithful to the period (1944-45) while creating an ambiguous, eternal West that could just as easily be a half-century or more earlier. Willis’s sweeping widescreen cinematography is used by Pakula—as in The Parallax View—to stress the significance as well as the insignificance of the small detail in relation to the unmoved, unmoving western landscape. And Michael Small’s majestic, stirring score evokes the thundering widescreen-western scores of the Fifties. Nor can I overlook the contribution of Jane Fonda—the only lead-player Pakula has directed twice—in a performance that deliberately recalls, more in reverence than in parody, the tight smile, steady speech, and showdown walk of her iconic father.

But besides icons and archetypes, there are specific referents in the film as well, the most vivid of which, for me, is the cattle stampede on a rainy night: a river of steers flowing past in the flashes of lightning—an awesome depiction of the power of the herd, as well as a vivid invocation of Red River. In fact, for a while it looked to me as if Comes a Horsemanintended a deliberate inversion of Red River,with the two villains, cattle king Ewing (Jason Robards) and oilman Atkinson (George Grizzard), enacting a twentieth-century version of Tom Dunson and Matthew Garth, looking toward the last drive to market instead of the first. That sense of finality, at least, is all over the film, and the way Pakula gets us into his world sets us up for it. The film opens with two cowpokes leaving their campfire and riding out in the morning, looking for all the world like wranglers of the 1880s. A burst of gunfire—which might be expected to reinforce our reading of the milieu as nineteenth century—is revealed in a cut to have come from a military firing squad, in World War II uniform, officiating at the funeral of Ewing’s son. About the time we adjust to the juxtaposition of trucks and horses, the Old West with the New, Pakula jars us with another crash of gunfire, which we skeptically take to be more chicanery, until we realize that Billy is really dead and Frank (James Caan) wounded: this is a range war, and for all its anachronism it’s as real as the war that took Ewing’s son, prompting Billy to tell Frank (we later recall with a sense of irony) “We was the lucky ones, Frank; there was times I thought we might end up the same way.”

There’s another funeral in the film, in which Ella (Fonda) buries a motherless colt she has been unable to nurse to self-sufficiency; and yet another, when Dodger (Richard Farnsworth)—one of the most likable old coots ever to come down the trail—is laid to rest by Ella and Frank. Ewing’s repeated insistence that this is Ella’s last year is amplified by the weathered dimness of the film’s look, the fading light stressing the coming end of this way of life. If it’s not Ella’s last year—and she is undefeated at the finish—it is certainly one of her last; even Frank is thinking of giving up and moving to town. The film becomes an elegy for a way of life, a type of person, an inviolate land, and even the elemental conflict of the range war. Yet despite the finality of it all, Pakula accepts no crossing of the bar. In the film’s climax, corn, audacity, death, and romance all come together in a crescendo and recapitulation of the film’s key elements. Melodramatically trapped in a burning building, set afire by Ewing in his most direct assault on Ella’s land, Ella and Frank notice the smoke of the fire clouding out the little dollhouse that is a scale model of the real Conners house. As the smoke fills the screen an invisible cut gives us a mist of smoke from which emerges Ewing symmetrically flanked by his two goons, who are soon deleted from the frame by the camera’s track-in to close on Ewing alone. Hero and heroine escape, a shootout ensues, and Ewing, dying, one foot still in the stirrup, is dragged, rather than rides, off into the sunset. The fire, as good a reason as any for Frank and Ella to pack it in and move to the city at last, instead becomes the Götterdammerung preceding a new dawn: A darkling sky meets a bright green-gold earth, and the once broken windmill is now repaired and spinning as Frank and Ella begin to rebuild.

© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow

Direction: Alan J. Pakula. Screenplay: Dennis Lynton Clark. Cinematography: Gordon Willis. Production design: George Jenkins. Editing: Marion Rothman. Music: Michael Small.
The players: Jane Fonda, James Caan, Jason Robards, Richard Farnsworth, George Grizzard, Macon McCalman, Jim Davis, James Kline, James Keach.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.