Tom Horn Review

Tom Horn is so nearly a great film that viewing it becomes a rather frustrating experience. The result of a tortuous production history, it contains so many good things that you desperately want it to take flight, to become more than the sum of its parts. Sadly, this never quite happens but there’s enough good in the film to make it extremely interesting and undeserving of its status as a largely forgotten film. It’s also, not at all incidentally, notable as the film which should have been Steve McQueen’s last film before his untimely death – and if you forget that The Hunter ever happened (which isn’t difficult) then it’s a very appropriate swan song.

Tom Horn is something of a legend amongst those who have maintained an occasionally unfashionable interest in the American West. He was a cowpuncher, a regulator and an outlaw. He was one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and he was the man who served as tracker in the operation which captured the great chief Geronimo. When he came back from the Spanish-American war in 1901, he felt, according to his own account written while he was, waiting to see if the death sentence conferred upon him might be stayed, like a man out of time. Hired to act as a “stock detective” for John Coble, a powerful cattle baron living near Laramie, Horn was all too successful in his efforts to stamp out rustling. His reluctance to bring rustlers in for trial and his penchant for killing in plain view made him a dangerous man and in the early autumn of 1902 he was arrested for the murder of a thirteen year old boy. Convicted on decidedly slim evidence, he was given the death sentence but refused to succumb quietly. He lobbied, with Coble’s help, for a retrial but failed to get one, managing only to have his execution delayed. Two escape attempts proved abortive and Horn was hung on November 20th 1903.

In other words, Tom Horn was a 19th Century man washed up in the 20th Century and not at all happy about it. It’s a great subject for Westerns of course and one which was perhaps best explored in Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece The Wild Bunch - a film set ten years later on the eve of the First World War. Horn’s dilemma – what does a man of violence do when society no longer has use for him – was one commonly faced by soldiers returning from the Spanish-American war, a conflict which straddled two centuries and ended up by making a president out of Teddy Roosevelt – a fine example in itself of a wild man tamed through politics. The story of Tom Horn was a dream project of the writer Thomas McGuane who wrote a 450 page screenplay about his life. This was optioned in 1977 by Steve McQueen’s company First Artists and then cut down and partially rewritten. The finished film dispenses with Horn’s life prior to 1901 and deals with his final years as a sort of post-Watergate Western in which the free individual is framed and killed by the forces of a conservative establishment. There isn’t much historical evidence to suggest that this was the case. The facts seem to be that a marshal named Joe Lefors was convinced that Horn shot the teenage boy by mistake and simply wanted the case cleared up. He tried to get Tom to admit his error but the more that Tom denied it, the angrier Joe became and the more determined he was to prove his theory correct. The film suggests that Tom was framed and that only his old friends and John Coble believed in his innocence. In fact, Tom’s defence was paid for by a group of local businessmen and stockmen, led by Coble. The only men in the town eager for his conviction were Joe Lafors, the hanging judge and a family called the Millers who had disliked Tom for his relationship with a lodger of theirs, Glendolene Kimmel. In factual terms, the film is pretty loosely adapted from any historical source, including Horn’s own highly coloured memoirs.

But let’s leave the facts aside and consider what the film achieves. It looks quite spectacular, shot by the ace DP John Alonzo who makes full use of some incredible Arizona locations. There’s a feeling for space and light here which is often breathtaking, perfectly matching the emotions that Tom Horn himself has for the landscape which he sees from his prison cell, almost but not quite vivid enough to touch. The editing is razor sharp, keeping the pace moving impressively quickly for a film which has very little obvious plot. There’s also much to praise in the acting from a cast which includes Western veterans like Slim Pickens and the remarkable Richard Farnsworth (both of whom were cowboys in days of yore). In the role of Glendolene – here expanded from an acquaintance into some kind of romantic lead – Linda Evans does very well and it’s a shame that she disappeared soon after into the profitable world of TV Soaps. Billy Green Bush, sadly, isn’t entirely satisfactory as a marshal seemingly based on Joe Lefors. He doesn’t have the talent for malice and his blandness means that the central confrontation between him and Tom doesn’t work.

That the film doesn’t entirely work might be down to the way it plays with the historical facts to create a very 1970s conspiracy theory. Or possibly that it doesn’t give us enough sense of what Tom Horn was before he came into John Coble’s service. It’s maybe a little too self-consciously worthy and sentimental, shamelessly playing for time in the final execution sequence. But film history is littered with almost-great movies that don’t quite make it for some reason that you can’t quite put your finger on. Just think of Huston’s Freud, Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn, Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn, Billy Wilder’s Fedora, Scorsese’s New York New York, Clint Eastwood’s Honkytonk Man, John Schlesinger’s Day of the Locust and David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. None of those movies is what I would call a great film, some of them aren’t even all that good. But they’re all ambitious failures which have enough in them to keep your admiration even while you tap your fingers in irritation, and that’s the category into which I would place Tom Horn.

The thing which gives it whatever greatness it possesses, however, is Steve McQueen. It wasn’t his last movie but it’s the last film which he was passionate about and upon which he put his considerable stamp. He bought the project, read a multitude of scripts, produced it through his company and, despite the credit for TV Director William Wiard, he directed it. Having gone through three directors – Don Siegel, Elliot Silverstein and James William Guercio - and still failed to get the film started, McQueen was impatient and decided to do the job himself. His lack of credit is down to Director’s Guild rules which prevent an actor who has been associated with a project under another director being given a directorial credit. He shows real feeling for the period and the subject matter and obviously worked very closely with Alonzo to make the film look as good as it does. His acting is sublime here, as subtle and insightful as anything he ever did. He exudes his usual million-dollar presence but also manages to convince us that Tom Horn is an ordinary man thrust into notoriety through a series of lucky breaks. Most of all, he seems to recognise a kindred spirit in Tom Horn, someone who history couldn’t change or divert from his own very peculiar individuality. The knowledge that McQueen was already dying when the film was made gives it a particular edge when watched now and the final moments have a heartbreaking sincerity. If this touching, lyrical paean to the spirit of the individual, more at peace with the hills and the open range than with other people, is considered his last testament then it’s as fitting as any I can imagine.

The Disc

This is the last of my reviews of Warners’ “Essential Steve McQueen Collection” and it’s a pretty good disc to round off the series.

The film is presented in its original 2.40:1 ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. The results are generally pleasing. The colours come across beautifully with a vivid richness and there’s plenty of detail to the image. There is perhaps rather more grain than is strictly necessary and I spotted a certain amount of print damage in places but overall this is a satisfactory transfer. The mono soundtrack offers no major problems although Ernest Gold’s rather strident score seems a bit loud in places.

The only extra feature is the original theatrical trailer, a good example of a preview which misrepresents the film its trying to sell. No wonder some of McQueen’s fans came out baffled when they had been led to expect an all-action extravaganza. The disc offers optional subtitles in English, French and Spanish.

Tom Horn is a slightly awkward but touching and insightful film which is not entirely satisfying but always worthwhile. This DVD presents the film well and anyone familiar with it only from cropped TV showings or the pan and scan VHS release is urged to take this chance to see it in its correct ratio.

7 out of 10
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