At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Tom Horn “80”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Western/ Stars: Steve McQueen, Linda Evans, Richard Farnsworth, Billy Green Bush, Slim Pickens, Peter Canon, Elisha Cook, Roy Jenson, James Kline, Geoffrey Lewis, Harry Northup, Steve Oliver, Bill Thurman, Bert Williams, Bobby Bass, Mickey Jones, Mel Novak, Clark Coleman, Drummond Barclay, Chuck Hayward/ Runtime: 98 minutes

In 1980, cinematic icon Steve McQueen was at a low patch in his life both personally and professionally. Indeed not only had his 1978 against-type comeback vehicle An Enemy of the People that he made following a retirement period of 4 years in the aftermath of his 12 million dollar paycheck role in The Towering Inferno crashed and burned spectacularly both critically and at the box office and he had priced himself out of several movies that wound up being critical and commercial disasters to say nothing of passing up a little slice of cinema from Steven Spielberg known as Close Encounters with the Third Kind which has since become regarded as a sci-fi classic, but he was going through a divorce to Ali MacGraw and so with all of that weighing on him pretty heavily he decided to find a film project to work on in an effort to revive his star status a little bit. Yet although he wanted to attach his slightly faded star to an adaptation of a play by Harold Pinter known as Old Times, a production company known as First Times had other plans. They instead wanted McQueen to make a slice of Western cinema known as Tom Horn so he could finish out his 3-picture contract with Warner Brothers. In hindsight perhaps maybe just maybe they should have just let him do the adaptation he wanted to do. I mean don’t get me wrong dear reader: Tom Horn is not by any means a bad slice of cinema. Rather, it’s one that is a perfectly serviceable and decent for what it’s trying to achieve slice of Western cinema. It’s more that this is also one slice of cinema has quite a few flaws attached to it as well. Flaws that, despite fairly good work from McQueen in the titular role as well as a game collection of co-stars in front of the camera as well as decent work from the departments behind the camera, really do not do this slice of cinema any favors by any stretch of the imagination and as a result manage to turn something that could have been genuinely great into something that is tragically good but no more and no less than that.

The plot is as follows: A dramatic adaptation that is inspired by the true story of an iconic man of the West, the slice of cinema “Tom Horn” is one that presents to the movie goer a possible look back at the last few years in this iconic figure’s life as he is in the midst of making his way just stumbling and rumbling around what was then called the territory of Wyoming in the long gone year of 1901. It is while in a local watering hole (read: bar) there that our intrepid hero not only gets into a delightful scuffle, but also crosses paths with a decent and upstanding cattle rancher by the name of John Coble. A man who, along with his business associates, presents our hero with a rather intriguing business proposition. It seems that this association if you prefer to call it that (I myself would go with group of business partners, but alas that might be too lengthy) has been having quite a few issues with packs of rustlers trying to make off with their cattle to say nothing of the ever increasing amount of ranchers raising sheep instead of cattle. Thus this ranching conglomerate are willing to hire Horn to operate as their very own “Stock Detective” (or Sirloin P.I. if you prefer) and cut him loose and let him operate with these rustlers and miscellaneous how he sees fit be it through shoot to kill or to just simply bring them in to face justice. Indeed it seems that in Horn they have a man who, based entirely off his legendary reputation, they feel is the answer to their prayers much to the annoyance of the local Marshall, one Joe Bell, whose ego is making him feel like he is being cut out of the loop despite the community respecting his skill as a lawman. At any rate, we see that moving forward to about a year or so later and the rustlers have really subsided. It seems that Horn is worth every penny the ranchers are paying him and he has done his job phenomenally. A bit too phenomenally actually. I say that because I guess Tom has found himself becoming a bit more on the radar than these ranchers would have liked him to be. However, it is only after a skirmish in town where our intrepid hero guns a man down in defense of his own life that we see 95% of this ranching conglomerate as well as Marshall Bell come to the conclusion that Horn is now more trouble than he is worth. Thus how is all of this going to play out and just what in the world does this all mean for our hero and his way of life that, much like the frontier around him, seems to be vanishing at an alarming rate? That dear reader I will leave for you to discover for yourself….

Now when looking at this slice of cinema I will at least say this about it: this movie most assuredly is a beautiful film to look at. I mean the work done by this slice of cinema’s cinematography department headed by John Alonzo really does a terrific job at making this film look not only lovely, but also and just as important, realistic since that is the feel that the overall film is aiming for. Other than that though, I’m going to be honest with you movie lover: behind the camera this slice of cinema is quite the unfortunate mess. This starts with this film’s script and I am sure that the pair of writers who wrote this film’s screenplay are immensely talented people. Having said that however, this film’s script is still plagued by the fact that the writers were never entirely sure about the film they were writing and as a result subjected this movie’s script to way too many rewrites. A fact that becomes apparent when you see that this film is the recipient of several confusing flashbacks that are meant to further expand on the typical romance subplot, but which ultimately wind up proving to be rather confusing due to how out of nowhere they wind up being. Along with that, this film is also edited extremely poorly and as a result we see that the whole film is highly disjointed as a result. Worst of all though is the fact that this slice of cinema, due mostly to creative issues with Steve McQueen, went through no less than 4 directors and as a result this film really suffers from having too many proverbial cooks in the kitchen meddling with it thus resulting in a film that isn’t able to coalesce as well as it should.

Now in terms of the performances that are given in this slice of cinema the best way that I would describe them is very much the way that I have described this slice of cinema overall: good but nothing special to pay the extra postage to write home about. This starts with Steve McQueen in the titular role and honestly he’s not bad in this. Indeed McQueen does, for all intents and purposes, manage to fairly well showcase the core of this solitary and world-weary yet also slightly grizzled frontiersman whilst also providing the character with a nuanced and more low-key approach that actually works to the character’s benefit. That’s because although the character of Horn is an iconic part of a time-honored landscape that saw him kill many a man and see many a man try to kill him is, when the story to this slice of cinema gets underway, simply trying like a lot of people just like him not out with their guns a-blazin’. Rather, they’re just trying to find a way to fit into a world and era that is a complete and utter mystery to them and it is this take on Horn that we are getting from McQueen in this film. Indeed rather than give us any acts of daring bravado that would make the character over the top in some way, McQueen instead settles for making the character a guy who is proud of who he is with none of the possible ego from such levels of pride coming with it and it is this low-key attitude that distinguishes this character from others like Thomas Crown that McQueen played in his career and really sets this slice of cinema from others of a similar ilk. We also see that this slice of cinema has been blessed with a collection of good supporting performances from such screen icons as Slim Pickens (whose collection of noteworthy performances include such roles as Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove, the voice of B.O.B. in 1979’s The Black Hole, and Taggart in 1974’s Blazing Saddles among others), Linda Evans, Richard Farnsworth (who I loved as the sheriff in 1990’s Misery), Elisha Cook, and Billy Green Bush among others.  Indeed not only do all of these dependable performers give fairly good performances, but they also do a fairly good at fleshing out the world of this slice of cinema as much as they possibly can within the confines sadly placed on them by the issues plaguing the film itself and by and large they succeed in their attempts to do so.

All in all well Steve McQueen may very well be considered by many, and rightfully so, as a legend of Hollywood cinema with particular regard to the world of cinema in Hollywood from the 60s and 70s, but I can safely say that this slice of cinema most assuredly is not the high point in the life of the man to say nothing of his truly remarkable career. A bit sad really since if had not had to go through no more and no less than 5 different directors, the production team not trying to incorporate 2 distinct narratives into the overall film: one a significantly more linear take and the other by and large more flashback oriented, and the fact that this slice of cinema was still being continuously re-edited mere months before the movie’s initial theatrical release in March of 1980 among other elements then this slice of cinema could have been something genuinely special to behold. Yet as it is, this slice of cinema is also by no means a piece of trash to just dump into the cinematic bonfire. Sure there is the tragic element that you could factor in consisting of the fact that this was one of the last 2 slices of cinema McQueen worked on before his tragically untimely demise to lung cancer. Yet even when you look past that there is no denying that McQueen does do good work in the titular role, the support cast that has been assembled all do wonderful work in their respective parts, there are moments where the helmsmanship is solid, and the cinematography is quite well done as well. Thus I definitely think that although Tom Horn “80” is by no stretch of the imagination a must-see slice of cinema by any stretch of the imagination, it is one slice of cinema that is good enough to see on a rainy day, if you want something quick to sit through, you’re a die-hard McQueen fan and want to be able to say you’ve seen all the movies that the man was able to give us in his iconic yet still tragically all too brief career, or all the above. Make of that therefore what you will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give Tom Horn “80” a solid 3 out of 5.