In 1901, after 33 years in San Quentin, Bill Miner ‘The Gentleman Bandit’ was released into the Twentieth Century
Despite, arguably, being the purest form of cinema — certainly in America — the Western is often kicked to the kerb and forgotten, remaining as lost in the wilderness as Phillip Borsos’ Canadian Western The Grey Fox from 1982. Lauded by critics on its initial release (it won the Canadian Genie awards for both best film and best direction), it more than deserves the love and respect it received at the time. However, this remarkable feature debut has remained largely unseen by modern audiences – having never been released on DVD – and now, thanks to Kino Korber, it has been restored and rereleased.
Originally produced by Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios (now American Zoetrope) this incredible piece of work tells the true story of stagecoach robber Bill Miner (Richard Farnsworth) who, in 1901, is released from a 30-year prison sentence. Entering the 20th century a free man, he struggles to adjust and find his place in the modern world until one day he sees the first Western put to screen, Edwin S. Porter’s 11-minute silent film, The Great Train Robbery (1903).
The key moment — a prime example of Stanley Kubrick’s method of non-submersible units — defines the Western genre, its characters, the filmmaking and history of cinema (quite literally) in one sitting. As he settles into his seat, Farnsworth’s performance exudes the spirit of a five-year-old boy watching his first movie, while at the same time revealing the soul of this ‘Gentleman Bandit’ through radiant blue eyes. With his features illuminated by the screen, we are immediately brought into the mythic realm of cinema and what it presents to us. Here it romanticises the Wild part of the West and those infamous characters while the use of referencing — even the auto-referencing — continues to pull us in.
As the iconic moment in The Great Train Robbery plays out with the bandit firing directly at the viewer we feel we should be raising our hands. It not only epitomises the breaking of the fourth wall but also reminds Miner (and ourselves) of his earlier life – Bill Miner is reputed to have coined the phrase ‘Hands up!’ in the first place. As we sit there in the darkened space we contemplate the blurring of boundaries between the Law and the Outlaw along with the meta-boundaries of these cinematic heroes. In the meantime, the moment is so exciting for the rest of the onscreen audience that they fire their own weapons — we’re startled as much as our anti-hero. Slowly the gun smoke settles and the next chapter of Miner’s twilight years is forged in a heartbeat.
Up to this point, Miner’s life is more than reminiscent of that poignant moment when James Whitmore’s Brooks is released into a faster world in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) as he similarly avoids being run over by an automobile. The world, it would seem, “went and got itself in a big damn hurry.” Miner decides to adopt the pseudonym George Edwards before adapting to train robberies.
After a botched attempt in America, he moves on to British Columbia where he commits the first-ever train robbery in that region. Along the way he meets a strong-willed photographer, Kate, (Jackie Burroughs) and a relationship begins to develop between the two, giving us some hope that Miner will settle and leave his former life behind.
Another beautiful moment lingers on him picking up a Colt pistol — its heft and craftsmanship captured as though it’s as polite as he is. Miner studies it, pulls the hammer and lifts it on its side before turning upright in one fluid motion. Along with the inspired moment in the cinema, this scene not only demonstrates Borsos’ eye for framing and movement but also Richard Farnsworth’s ability as an actor.
Perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated roles in Alan J. Pakula’s Comes a Horseman (1978), the Lynch-light road movie The Straight Story (1999) and Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery (1990), Farnsworth was, for the majority of his career, one of Hollywood’s most respected stuntmen. From his first gig at the age of 16 on A Day at the Races (1937) to Spartacus (1960), he made numerous uncredited appearances as an actor in some of the most iconic films of all time, including Gone with the Wind (1939), Red River (1948), The Wild One (1953), and The Ten Commandments (1956) where his stuntwork often spilt into background and extra work. Farnsworth’s own life is a movie in its own right and with his casting in the role of Bill Miner, he managed to bring as much heft and history to the role as the colt he plays with at the beginning.
Although the film is not an American Western in origin, perhaps its Canadian roots and approach to the subject is the reason it takes on a more sedated outlook. There’s a stillness to Borsos’ method — a mentality reminiscent of a number of contemporary Westerns such as John Maclean’s Slow West (2015), Scott Cooper’s Hostiles (2017) and S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2014). Remove the violence and horror from these recent examples and this is what you would be left with — a fitting exploration of character — where Miner’s unusual politeness and stubborn mule mentality becomes the spirit of such a contemplative film that would form the perfect companion piece to David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun (2018) starring Robert Redford.
Miner is portrayed as a man quick on the draw but slow in thought. While travelling to nowhere at the beginning, his future uncertain, a salesman tells him about electricity revolutionising the kitchen and presents him an apple peeler the size of an old hand drill. “That sounds mighty fine…” he politely responds as he gives it a go, “…course, to a man my age, the future don’t mean too much, unless you’re maybe thinkin’ about next week.”
The dialogue is just one of many other perfect elements. You are completely lost in Frank Tidy’s masterful renaissance style cinematography of lilac horizons and the frost-filled grounds, elevating the film in the same way he did for Ridley Scott’s feature debut The Duellists (1979). The considered editing adds all the more to the melancholic nature as dialogue fragments from scenes and silent footage punctuates the film throughout. The music is yet another element that lends The Grey Fox its authentic nature — from The Chieftains‘ traditional Irish score to the hint of the silent film piano accompaniments during Miner’s robberies — these traces and bullet holes of early cinematic history and the genre make complete sense to Miner’s own acts of observation and moves beyond any simple character study.
Kino Lorber’s new 4K restoration is a sight to behold and for true appreciators of cinema and the Western genre it is an absolute must-see. Not only is it the ultimate accolade to two wonderfully talented people, and their legacy, but also another example of a defining moment for film from a year already filled with countless masterpieces.
The Grey Fox is released in virtual screening rooms across the US on May 29th.
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