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Tom Horn (1980)
IMDB Rating: 6.9/10 from 3,281 votes
Release: 26 June 1980 (Netherlands) /

Tom Horn (1980)

Genre: Crime, Drama, Romance, Western
Director: William Wiard,
Stars: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Synopsis: A renowned former army scout is hired by ranchers to hunt down rustlers but finds himself on trial for the murder of a boy when he carries out his job too well. Tom Horn finds that the simple skills he knows are of no help in dealing with the ambitions of ranchers and corrupt officials as progress marches over him and the old west. Written by Keith Loh <[email protected]>

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Critic Reviews

Soldier, Indian tracker, lawman, outlaw, hired killer - there are about a half dozen movies that could be made about Tom Horn, so it's surprising that it wasn't until the Western was on its last legs that, aside from the odd fleeting appearance in B-movies, he finally made it to the big screen. In some ways it's amazing he made it at all. 1980's Tom Horn was a troubled picture, and that's putting it mildly. Sam Peckinpah was at one time tapped to direct, but he fell out with star and producer Steve McQueen before shooting started – possibly literally, since McQueen's alleged response to a furious argument they had in the car one evening led to McQueen insisting he get out without bothering to stop first. Neither Don Siegel nor Elliot Silverstein made it past pre-production. Electra Glide in Blue director James Guercio only lasted for the first three days of the shoot, and cinematographer John Alonzo and McQueen himself also had a hand in the finished film at one point or another, with credited director William Wiard apparently hired only to placate the Directors Guild when they wouldn't allow the star to direct himself. The screenplay went through many changes along the route as well, with Thomas McGuane's 450-page epic being constantly chipped away, Abraham Polonsky's rewrite being rejected and Bud Shrake's final script eventually alternating with McGuane's depending on which version the star felt like filming that day. And just to add to the good news, the picture suffered from major budget cuts due to studio politics and the threat of a William Goldman-scripted Robert Redford rival project (eventually made for TV with David Carradine as Mr Horn), shrinking from a three-hour $10m epic about the Indian tracker and interpreter's life to a $3m small-scale Western about its ignominious end.

Under such circumstances it would be wildly optimistic to expect the film to be even watchable, let alone great, but somehow it bucked the odds to come out as a bona fide forgotten classic. While there's no shortage of action in the first half of the movie – certainly enough for the studio to somewhat misleadingly sell it as an action movie – this is really a much more elegiac Western about the end of an era seen through the fate of a man out of his time and trapped by a reputation he cannot really live up to anymore. "If you really knew how dirty and raggedy-assed the Old West was, you wouldn't want any part of it," he tells Linda Evans schoolteacher, and the ailing McQueen makes no attempt to disguise just how raggedy he looks himself. When we first meet Horn it's not long before he's on the losing end of a fight with champion boxer" Gentleman Jim" Corbett, and after a brief and all-too successful career disposing of rustlers for the local Cattlemen's Association, soon finds himself set up for an even bigger fall when his ruthless efficiency becomes something of a public relations disaster for them.

Taking its lead from Horn's own autobiography, dictated while on trial for murder, there is an element of print the legend to it: whereas the real Horn was undone by his own egotism (his claim to have captured Geronimo seems largely fantasy, though he was one of the trackers involved in the campaign), McQueen's Horn is a simple man, modest, inarticulate, awkward in social situations and only really good at killing, which he regards simply as his job. But there's a striking lack of vanity to the performance, with McQueen not afraid to look a shrunken figure long past his prime - even his futile escape attempt feels almost half-hearted, something he feels he's expected to do, and there's a sense of acceptance of his impending death as he makes his inevitable way to the water-triggered gallows that he springs himself because nobody else wants to pull the lever on him.

(Curiously lawman Joe LeFors, whose dubious testimony sealed Horn's fate, is renamed LaSalle in the film, possibly because McQueen didn't want the audience to make any connections with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which was a one-time McQueen project that helped his rival Robert Redford become a superstar: McQueen certainly knew how to hold a grudge.) The scars of the troubled production do sometimes show, not least in a flashback so abrupt everyone in the theatres thought they'd got the reels in the wrong order, but the strengths more than compensate, not least among them an effortlessly superb supporting performance from Richard Farnsworth, who manages to create a convincing on screen bond with McQueen despite their off screen history (the young McQueen had got Farnsworth fired from Wanted: Dead or Alive when the veteran was still a stuntman). The cold, stark look of the film, it's town either muddy or snowbound, its ranges barren and desolate, and Ernest Gold's brooding score also catch the mood of impending death all too well. The Hunter may have been McQueen's last film, but in many ways this is the more fitting epitaph.

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