[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
Surely Richard Harris presents a problem to directors, one that few of them have managed to surmount, camouflage, or get around, much less turn on its head and use to their advantage. To Antonioni he was mostly a carrot-topped fleshtone against emotionally apt pastel backdrops (Red Desert); Peckinpah was about two-thirds successful in exploiting his egocentric theatricality as an expression of selfdestructive romanticism on the part of a defeated Confederate officer (Major Dundee); Frankenheimer turned the whole world around him into such a comic-strip environment that his posturing became a comedically apt way of occupying frame space (99 & 44/100% Dead); Lester gave him the kind of ultra-professional specialty role in which his tics seemed existentially permissible as definitions of life lived in an unending series of vacuum pockets pressurized by imminent catastrophe (Juggernaut), and elsewhere (Robin and Marian) enabled him to attain sublimity as a mad monarch who seemed almost relieved to die an absurdist death before his actions could further subvert his heroic identity. Irvin Kershner, who has worked well with such problematical stars as Robert Shaw (The Luck of Ginger Coffey), Sean Connery (A Fine Madness), and George Segal (Loving), was virtually tripped at the starting gate by Harris’ dual influence on the Man Called Horse films as star and executive producer; indeed, the auteur of Return of a Man Called Horse is very probably Richard Harris himself. What a c1ayfooted Brando complex is at work here! What serene conviction that the viewer will vicariously relish his communion with Nature and a Nobler Way of Life, his stone-browed rages, his lingering postures of moral superiority and periodic, protracted drops into a hectoring whisper. (Leaving the theater I suggested to my companion that it’d be nice to see Harris get through an entire movie without once whispering a speech to a hall-sized body of listeners, then immediately amended my wish to see a film in which he does whisper and we cut to an interlocutor who says, “I can’t understand a fuckin’ word you’re saying!”)
In the present picture Harris recreates his role of Sir John Morgan, the English nobleman who was once captured by Yellow Hand Indians, went through living hell at first to survive and then to become a full-fledged member of the tribe, and left after most of the band (including his newly-won wife) was wiped out by another group of redmen. As Return gets underway, a similar atrocity is carried out by Indians under the direction of a nasty white trader (Geoffrey Lewis), who wants to erect his fort on the sacred Yellow Hand ground. Back in England, Sir John, observably estranged from his fox-hunting, music-appreciating peers, has inklings of disaster and takes this as welcome cue to desert effete civilization. (“Thank you for coming. I love you,” says an anemic prune he sits beside at a choral recital; “I’m sorry,” replies Sir John: exit.) He arrives in the West to find the few surviving Yellow Hands masochistically resigned to the bad hand the Evil Spirit has dealt them, which is all Sir John needs to hear before repairing to an improvised steambath, dropping some good dope (which precipitates an epiphany succinctly summed up in the Lost Horizon–remake song “The World Is a Circle without a Beginning”), and then getting really ripped on those bone hooks the Yellow Hands poke through their pectorals in times of stress. After this it thunders and then it’s all right to hunt buffalo again.
One-time blacklistee Gale Sondergaard contributes a striking presence as Elk Woman, her first performance in a “major Hollywood production” in decades, and Jorge Luke (the Apache scout in Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid) brings a forceful note of enigma to his brief role as an enemy warrior. Aside from these, the most interesting phenomenon in this otherwise gaseous enterprise is Owen Roizman’s almost three-dimensional landscape photography in 70mm. On the one hand, the long passages of non-dramatic action against and across these rolling scenes reinforce the pseudo-poetical, natural-man-redivivus pretentiousness of Harris’ self-serving exercise. But on the other, they suggest a discreetly distanced sort of contemplation that we associate with Kershner, a man who has demonstrated an unselfrighteous sensitivity to the moods and needs of other odd men out amid the snows of Ontario and New England, and the garish wonderland of Brooklyn. Hopefully he’ll have other opportunities to study fine and loving madness instead of committing his gracefully muted touch to celebrating a posturing jackanapes.
THE RETURN OF A MAN CALLED HORSE
Direction: Irvin Kershner. Screenplay: Jack Dewitt, after a character created in A Man Called Horse by Dorothy M. Johnson. Cinematography: Owen Roizman. Second-unit direction: Michael D. Moore. Music: Laurence Rosenthal. Executive producers: Sandy Howard, Richard Harris.
The players: Richard Harris, Gale Sondergaard, Geoffrey Lewis, Jorge Luke
© 1976 Richard T. Jameson
A pdf of the original issue can be found here