Appellate Judge Dave Ryan and John Greenleaf Whittier remind you that for all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: "It might have been."
"Keep your nerves, Sam. 'Cause I'm gonna keep mine."
Tom Horn was one of the Old West's last legendary characters. He was a tough, rugged cavalryman and scout who was one of the best trackers and interpreters during the long Apache Campaign. He was one of the handful of men who finally tracked down and captured the great Apache chief Geronimo. By the late 1800s, he had become a "stock detective"—he "investigated" cases of cattle rustling on behalf of ranchowners in Wyoming, and brought a little frontier justice to the rustlers via his crack rifle skills. In 1903, he was hanged for the murder of a rancher's 15-year-old son, a crime he most likely did not commit. To this day, he's one of the more colorful and popular characters in Wyoming's history.
Tom Horn, based on his autobiography, is a somewhat concatenated version of the last years of Horn's life. It would be just another forgettable early '80s motion picture, but for one small fact: it was Steve McQueen's next-to-last film. Hence, it's not lost to time; it's being released on DVD as part of Warner Bros.' The Essential Steve McQueen collection. But don't expect to find an epitaph for McQueen here. Instead, Tom Horn is a tantalizing view of what might have been.
Facts of the Case
Tom Horn (McQueen), legendary frontiersman, is wandering through the prairies of Wyoming. While he waters his horse in a small frontier town, the head of the local rancher's association, John Coble (Richard Farnsworth, The Straight Story), asks him if he will help them with their cattle rustling problems. He'll have free rein to deal with the problem as he sees fit (if you catch his drift), so long as the fact that he's working directly for the association isn't publicized. It wouldn't be politically wise for the ambitious local marshall Joe Bell (Billy Green Bush, Five Easy Pieces) to be associated with a roughneck like Horn. The association has bigger and better plans for him.
Horn takes the job, and does it well. Very well. Pretty soon, the rustling problem is all but gone—because virtually all the rustlers are dead. One straggler hunts Horn down in the middle of town; Horn terminates him with extreme prejudice. This, though, proves to be too much for the association. Horn is too visible; his methods are too crude for their carefully-crafted image. So they decide that he has to be "taken care of." Suddenly, a boy is dead, shot by a rifle that just happens to be the unusual caliber that Horn uses. After Bell tricks a drunken Horn into making seemingly incriminating statements, the local sheriff, Sam Creedmore (Slim Pickens, Blazing Saddles), has no choice but to arrest him for the crime…
Tom Horn is, unfortunately, not a particularly good film. It feels a lot like a made-for-TV movie of the era—and sure enough, it was long-time TV veteran William Wiard behind the camera for this one. (In fact, this was the only non-television credit of Wiard's long career.) Wiard fills the movie with lots of dissolve cuts and fast-zooms, plus more flashbacks—mostly concerning Horn's relationship with the local schoolmarm, Glendolene Kimmel (Linda Evans, Dynasty)—than you can shake a stick at. There's even a little bit of Peckinpah and Leone thrown in for good luck. All of this in only 97 minutes. (Heck, it's even timed like a TV movie…) So structurally, the film's a complete mess.
And that's a goldurned shame, because isolated chunks of it are pretty good. Once the real story, the frame-up and trial of Horn, kicks in at about the halfway point, things calm down a bit and the film becomes moderately interesting. But that's about, oh, 20 minutes of story, tops. The rest of the time, it's just a largely disconnected series of vignettes featuring Horn shooting people, or getting shot at, or being Deeply Sensitive with Glendoline in those gawd-awful flashbacks.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, which is a good thing. For all the film's flaws, the scenery in it is outstanding and well-photographed. Wiard keeps the color palette muted, giving the film the visual tone of a Wyeth painting. This movie needs to be grey and tan, and worn-looking. The print is unrestored, and does show occasional grain (especially in those ubiquitous dissolve cuts) and damage, but nothing exceedingly distracting. Sound, on the other hand, is disappointing. The audio track is a 1.0 mono Dolby Digital track that's weak and somewhat tinny. It's sad that the theatrical trailer (the only extra included), which is mixed into 2-track mono, sounds vastly superior to the feature. You can always clearly hear Horn's spurs jingling, though, so all is not lost.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Don't put the blame for this at the feet of the actors. They either do a great job with the character (McQueen) or are given no chance to succeed by the script and story (everyone else).
Most of the characters in Tom Horn are ciphers. We know nothing about them; they exist solely to advance the plot and interact with Horn as necessary. Pickens, a true cowboy, at least gives his character a bit of down-home real live westernism—but he really doesn't have a lot do to. Farnsworth is suitably dignified, and comes off as an honest man. But again, his character is so thin that there's only so far he can take that. Worst of all is Evans's thankless task—playing Horn's love interest Glendoline. Whatever potential this romance had is killed by the use of the flashback technique, which utterly guts all semblance of narrative from it. In real life, Glendoline apparently played an important role in Horn's demise—he was so taken with her that he stuck around for a bit too long, when he probably could have just escaped into the wilderness. That could have been an interesting plotline—but you won't find it here. Instead we have McQueen and Evans in flashback form, spouting Hallmark card-like platitudes at each other. I'll give them this, though—they do look good together.
The only real character in this film is Horn himself. It's a good role for McQueen; not a great one. In many ways, Horn is just an older version of Josh Randall (his character in Wanted: Dead or Alive), bringing McQueen's career full-circle. Horn and Randall both have a strong streak of the anti-hero in them. They're men who do their job whether it's "right" or not, because they know that out on the frontier, the definition of "right" depends on your point of view. Both sported a non-trivial chip on their shoulders; we see that side of Horn right off the bat, when he picks a fight with boxing champ Gentleman Jim Corbett and his entourage for no particular reason.
But Randall was young and full of fire—Horn is not. Horn, like McQueen himself, is a man facing middle age in a world that has increasingly little use for him. He sees the writing on the wall, but stubbornly refuses to change in the least. He'll go down alright—but he'll go down on his own terms. McQueen captures all these sides of Horn despite the weak script—because he's Steve Freakin' McQueen, and he doesn't need no stinkin' script to act. But McQueen also infuses Horn with an intangible sense of humanity and pathos. You really feel bad for the guy, even when he's shooting guys in the back. There's a nobility in Horn's pride and stubbornness that McQueen captures perfectly.
It was during the filming of Tom Horn that McQueen—markedly thinner than he had been in his last film, An Enemy of the People—first noticed that he had a persistent cough. When he went to a doctor after the film wrapped, he learned he was dying of mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer. One has to wonder whether he somehow unconsciously knew that something was very wrong with him when he was making this film. In any event, the sight of a dying McQueen playing the doomed Horn is both ironic and poignant. The role isn't outstanding, and doesn't constitute a triumphant final stand on the silver screen—like, say, Giant did for James Dean. It just leaves you wondering what might have been. The 50-year-old Steve McQueen has all of his acting skills intact, but also had the quiet, worn-out look that age brings. Many of the McQueen-like actors out there—e.g. Dennis Weaver, Sam Elliott, Paul Newman, and McQueen's most direct contemporary, Clint Eastwood—produced outstanding work after the age of 50. What if McQueen had lived long enough to appear in Clint's Western To End All Westerns, Unforgiven? McQueen and Eastwood as two retired gunfighters strapping them on for one more job…the mind reels at the thought. Tom Horn, if it does nothing else, at least gives us a glimpse at what that might have been like: spectacular.
Tom Horn is an average film at best. It's a solid, interesting McQueen performance set into a mess of a story; one that had far more potential than we see here. Essential McQueen? Well…that depends. McQueen is always enjoyable to watch, but you're better off seeing him in something else if you're after guaranteed entertainment.
No, Tom Horn is essential only for the true fan—but for those fans, it is essential. Here is the lion in what turned out to be his winter. Rest easy knowing that he went out while he was still on his game; spend some time thinking about how far he could have taken that game had he lived. And try not to think about the fact that his last two films were less than stellar. It certainly wasn't because of him.
McQueen is free to go; Tom Horn, though, will have to hang.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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