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Tom Horn
(1980)

Director: William Wiard
Cast:
Steve McQueen, Linda Evans, Richard Farnsworth


Note: Wow... I'm back so soon after a couple of weeks ago my health being at a very low point. I managed to get the help I needed much more quickly than I thought. Though I still have some recovery to do, today I got a serious itch to write a new review. Before you read it, I would first like to thank my readers for wishing the best for me when I was very ill. My difficult experience at least taught me who I can count on in my life when I need support, which as I indicated includes all of you. Thank you again, and on with the review!

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It is usually tough for a big star to maintain his or her career. Even if they try to plan their career well, the fickle public can soon make them box office poison. Then the actor has the additional stress of trying to resurrect their career, usually with limited options. One of the most famous (and recent) examples of an actor's comeback going wrong can be seen with what happened to Arnold Schwarzenegger. After making a cameo appearance in the 2005 movie The Kid And I, Schwarzenegger took an almost total break from acting to become the governor of California for several years, only making a couple of brief appearances in the first two Expendables movies during that time. After he left office, he chose the project The Last Stand to be his comeback movie. But as you probably know, the movie was a big flop and exited theaters around the world quickly. Having done some research, I've concluded that the movie flopped not because of its quality, but because of everything else. Certainly the lengthy period of Schwarzenegger gone from theaters did make him fade somewhat with the public, but there were other reasons as well. The movie was released in January, a historically weak time at the box office when studios often dump movies they have little confidence in. Its distributor (Lions Gate Films) put out a bad marketing campaign, like ads that included clips of Schwarzenegger's character in the movie saying he felt, "Old" - hardly the way to attract young moviegoers. Also, Schwarzenegger's autobiography had been released not long before the movie, and Schwarzenegger's sordid tales of infidelity and other tsk-tsk things soured him to the public. I think another reason for the movie's failure can be seen in the movies he made in the nine or so years before becoming governor; except for Terminator 3, none were significant hits with the public, suggesting the public even back then was losing its taste for his style of films.

Failed comebacks can also be found in the world of unknown movies. In the past, I have covered several examples of failed comebacks. For example, there was the case of Tom Laughlin. He had great success with the first three Billy Jack movies, but when he came out with the period western The Master Gunfighter, it became a costly flop. Laughlin then attempted a comeback, returning to what seemed to be safe territory with Billy Jack Goes To Washington, but that too was an embarrassing flop, so much so that Laughlin tried to save face by ridiculous claims that the American government conspired to sabotage its release. Then there was the case of Steve McQueen, who also made more than one attempt at a comeback in his career. After the enormous success of 1974's The Towering Inferno, McQueen lost interest in acting in part because he had now accumulated a great deal of money. For the next three years he did not act at all despite repeated offers. But the production firm First Artists eventually reminded him that he still owed them two movies, and threatened to sue if he didn't get cracking. Annoyed with this, he chose to do An Enemy Of The People, a very uncommercial project. Strangely, during the making of the movie, he became passionate about acting again, and felt the movie upon its release would be a big hit and have the public see him more than "cool". But when the distributor (Warner Brothers) saw the finished movie, they saw the movie as anything but commercial, and never gave it a real theatrical release.

Naturally, McQueen was upset by this, and spent the next year or so nursing his wounds and trying to stabilize his crumbling private life. Then First Artists reminded McQueen that he still owed them one more movie. After some discussion, both parties agreed that the movie that would get Tom Hornmade would be Tom Horn. McQueen apparently entered this project with more enthusiasm than he did with his last movie (he also acted as a producer), though reports I've read claim McQueen was especially pleased about getting a fat paycheck. The movie upon release grossed $12 million - which back then would be a decent gross for a smaller film, but unlikely a profitable gross for a major period piece vehicle for an expensive star like McQueen. Even worse, the critical reception was either mixed or extremely negative. McQueen only made one more movie (The Hunter) before dying of complications from cancer. But getting back to Tom Horn, I'd heard its reputation had improved greatly over the years since its initial release - just like Schwarzenegger's The Last Stand. This, as well as it being a western, made me decide to give it a look when I stumbled upon a DVD of it at a thrift store. The plot of the movie is based on a true story about a man named Tom Horn (McQueen). Horn made a name for himself in the latter part of the 19th century in the American west by helping in the capture of Geronimo, but also in various other roles ranging from being a Pinkerton detective to a hired killer. But when the movie starts, it is now the 20th century and the wild west that Horn once knew is more or less gone, and Horn seems to sense he doesn't have a place in this new world. However, Horn soon finds a job that seems at home for him, working for a cattle company to deter rustlers by any means possible. At first, Horn's often violent methods don't concern his employers, but when the public starts to get an idea of Horn's questionable practices and gets outraged, the cattle company starts to get uneasy. Shortly after, an innocent teenage boy is shot dead, and evidence points to Horn having done it. But did he?

The behind the scenes going-ons of Tom Horn were chaotic, to put it mildly. McQueen discovered during the shoot that he had lung cancer, three directors (including Don Siegel) were each hired and soon after fired before William Wiard came in to finish the production, McQueen had heated battles with each director, and the script was repeatedly put through rewrites during the entire shoot. When chaos like that happens during the production of a movie, the end results usually aren't very good. But every so often a fine movie comes out of chaos, and that is what Tom Horn is. It's not a perfect movie, for reasons I will get into later, but it is pretty solid. One of its pleasant surprises is that despite the fact that four directors worked on the movie, the movie for the most part feels pretty uniform throughout. Some of this has to come from the gorgeous photography by John Alonzo (Real Men), which captures the cold, grit, and desolation of early 20th century cattle country. (Warner Brothers, get this movie released on Blu-Ray now!) But the directors themselves also capture life in this time and place, namely how dangerous it could be. A number of people die or get injured in ways that always pack a serious punch. Even when a murderous rustler gets shot by Horn, your first thought isn't that the victim deserved it; you instead are struck at how barbaric and uncivilized the killing is. Even when nobody is being pursued or killed, there is always a feeling in the air that the next instance of violence is just around the corner. There is a somewhat sad feeling from one scene to another, though don't get me wrong - it isn't off-putting enough to make you want to press the "stop" button on your DVD remote control. The depressing feeling the movie generates strangely enough gets you interested to see what will eventually happen. Will Horn (or anyone else for that matter) realize that while the Wild West era has ended, there is still plenty of inhumanity around and someone should do something about it? This question and others will keep you watching to the end for some kind of answer.

But director Wiard and the three other directors that came before him also do well when it comes to the cast, not just McQueen. Among the supporting cast, Richard Farnsworth (Monte Walsh) makes the most impression as the cattleman who hires Horn. He is very sympathetic, showing warmth and a belief that Horn can do the job, and also shows genuine sorrow when things start to turn against Horn. Billy Green Bush (The Culpepper Cattle Co.) manages to convince as a U.S. Marshal who at first claims to be on Horn's side, but even in those scenes gives the audience a feeling that he is really just for himself and being in a safe position. And Linda Evans (The Klansman), playing the love interest of Horn, shows a simple sweetness that is absolutely charming, generating great chemistry in her scenes paired with McQueen. As for McQueen himself, it should come as no surprise that he does well despite his character not being "cool" like many of his past roles. McQueen finds the right note for this character, with the wise decision to not play Horn as a young man, but as a somewhat older (and plumper) person who still has some savvy and skill at his profession, though not really realizing (or wanting to admit) that his profession is now seriously out of date in this new world. He plays Horn as a little arrogant, though not in a way that will seriously turn off viewers. When he insults visiting boxer "Gentleman" Jim Corbett (Steve Oliver, Werewolves On Wheels), you sense by his tone that he's struggling to stay prominent than wanting to hurt someone's feelings. After Corbett and his men beat him up, as Horn tries to casually nurse his wounds, you feel a little sorry for him as he tries to convince Farnsworth that it's no big deal. Later in the movie, when Horn is almost killed by a rustler, you see genuine shock on his face - he literally dodged a bullet, and he knows it. So you can almost understand it when he shoots the dead rustler a second time before burning down his victim's home.

As you can probably see from those vignettes I described in the previous paragraph, the title character of Tom Horn is a somewhat more complex lead character than what you often find in westerns. He is a person who in some situations can be at ease, like when he cracks a joke about his horse to a stableman in the opening scene. But in other situations, he is clearly out of his element, such as when he's invited to dinner by Farnsworth and is puzzled when the dish being served is lobster. The screenplay also leaves it up to the viewer as to if Horn was guilty of the shooting of that teenage boy - there is plenty of evidence either way you look at it. At the end of the movie, you'll be thinking about this character long afterwards when you've long forgotten other lead characters in westerns. While the strength of Tom Horn's screenplay is with its title character, the writing could have used some work in other areas. Namely with the portions of the movie that involve Linda Evan's character. For one thing, it is never explained why her character is attracted to Tom Horn in the first place. It seems to be love at first sight, but with someone with a dangerous side like Horn, there has to have been more that would make this school teacher drop her guard with him. A bigger problem, however, is that this whole romantic subplot seems to serve no purpose. I mentally re-edited the movie in my head, and I realized that this subplot could have easily been removed without affecting the rest of the story at all. But this subplot only takes up a limited portion of the total running time, so it didn't really interfere with the movie that much, and it didn't stop Tom Horn from being what I considered McQueen's previous movie An Enemy Of The People to be - a pretty good movie. Both movies definitely deserve a major critical re-evaluation, as well as a receptive audience.

(Posted August 17, 2021)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
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Check for availability on Amazon (Download)
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Check for availability on Amazon of the autobiography of the real Tom Horn
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Check for availability on Amazon of biography of Steve McQueen

See also: Bad Company, Dan Candy's Law, An Enemy Of The People

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