Tom Horn: Steve McQueen transcends his cool persona and delivers a deeply moving performance as the legendary Western folk hero

Tom Horn (1980) was Steve McQueen’s penultimate movie and was released just a few months before his death on on November 7 1980. Though it’s not a film that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of McQueen, the film features one of his most deeply felt performances as the legendary gunfighter in the old West.

“Tom Horn, I thought, was Steve’s best movie, He was loose and free, and he wasn’t guarded. Most of his films he was guarded. He had a form. If the film wasn’t rigid enough, he was going to be good. I always felt Steve would really be a good actor if he ever grew up…. I think he finally did on Tom Horn. That was him finding his adulthood.”

Actor James Coburn, (Steve McQueen’s friend who costarred with him in three films).

“Tom Horn 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. But when he came back from the Spanish-American war in 1901, he was a man out of time and out of place. 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.”

Like Tom Horn at the turn of the twentieth century, Steve McQueen too was a man ‘out of place and out of time’ in the late 1970’s. McQueen hadn’t made a major movie for five years; after making The Towering Inferno in 1974, and becoming immensely rich (thanks to a good revenue sharing deal he struck on that megahit film), McQueen was able to enjoy the pleasures of retirement life, faraway from Hollywood and the arc lights. But after the failure of his second marriage to Ali MacGraw, and being pressured by his studio, First Artists – which had a right to two more of McQueen’s films, he decided to make a comeback. McQueen signed on to do the role of Tom Horn in 1977, and would spent three years researching the role, even spending a night at Tom Horn’s grave to help develop his character (an exercise which resulted in him eerily claiming that Horn’s ghost dropped in on him). The film was originally set to be directed by veteran Don Siegel (Dirty Harry) and to be written by Abraham Polonsky. But as it happens with a majority of McQueen films , where the star would play the troublemaker, Tom Horn too would have a torturous production history. First,  McQueen had Polonsky fired, claiming he didn’t like his script. Seeing the erratic behavior of his lead star, Don Siegel resigned, leaving the film without a director. Siegel was replaced by Elliott Silverstein, who also left before a single foot of  film was shot and was replaced, at McQueen’s insistence, by James William Guercio, who had made a film in 1973 called Electra Glide in Blue, which nobody saw, except for McQueen i guess, because the film was  about motorcycles and solitude (two of McQueen’s favorite pastimes). This time the studio, First Artists, got in to the act and fired Guercio and replaced him with an even obscure director William Wiard. To complicate matters further, they commissioned a totally new script from Thomas McGuane. McGuane was quite an expert on Tom Horn, and had previously channeled him for Marlon Brando’s character in The Missouri Breaks, on which he was the chief screenwriter. McGuane was so utterly in love with his subject that he ended up producing a script that was 450 pages long. It would have suited a miniseries rather than a feature film. Anyway, the original idea was to make Tom Horn into a 3 hour epic at a cost of $10 million. But the studio soon lost faith in the film and had the budget slashed to just $3 million, with a running time close to 100 minutes. It was McQueen (who was also the film’s executive producer) who directed most of the film in collaboration with the great cinematographer John Alonzo, while the credited director, Wiard, merely served as a dummy to placate the Directors Guild of America (which forbade stars from taking over the direction of a film from the director). With all these changes taking place during its production, by the time the film was finally released, it looked as if it had come out of a blender, with the downbeat ending of McQueen being hanged on camera not adding to its commercial prospects. The film was heavily reedited before its release, but that didn’t save the film at the box office, where it died a quick death.

Tom Horn, the film, is an ‘End-of-the-West’ western like Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch. It’s a lyrical, poignant film about a hero of the old west , who does his best to adapt to the New West of businessman, Cattle company owners and politicians, but fails miserably. Audiences were used to action-packed Westerns with gunfights and brawls.  (De facto) director McQueen offered them something different: a meditation of the West and a character study of one of America’s best-known figures of the era. So it was understandable why the audiences didn’t take to it. Because of its abridged running time, and since the film portrays only the last couple of years of Horn’s life, we never find out how and why Horn is a legend; we just have to accept him as a legendary gunfighter, and the fact that a star of the magnitude of Steve McQueen is playing him also helps. Actually, there was an attempt by director Sydney Pollock to make a definitive epic on Tom Horn’s life with Robert Redford from a script written by William Goldman(Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid). But once McQueen decided to go ahead with his project, Pollock dropped the idea. McQueen was always a presence, a persona in his films, rather than an actor; he, and the audience, prefer to see him coast along  on his trademark cool star persona; something that he patented with his star making role in The Great Escape(1963). But in this film, he makes a genuine effort to break out of his very formal, stylized acting and ends up giving a very truthful and emotionally rich performance; this is in my opinion one of his greatest screen performances and it’s a shame that it got buried with the film, which itself is quite a unique – though very uneven – take on a western. What adds an extra dose of poignancy and verisimilitude to McQueen’s performance in the film  is  that McQueen’ himself was dying when he was making the film and he would be dead within a few months of its release. McQueen had started spitting up blood and finding it hard to breathe while making this film and he was soon diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer that would prove terminal. McQueen’s exhaustion is very visible in the opening scenes of the film, where we see Tom Horn arriving in a small town in Wyoming and immediately picking up a fight with the legendary Boxer Jim Corbett. Horn makes a rude remark about Corbett’s mother after Corbett insults the great Apache chief Geronimo; though Horn was instrumental in capturing Geronimo, he had the utmost respect for the great war chief and he was literally in tears when Geronimo was chained and led off to prison. So it’s understandable why Horn would stand no insult to the Apache chief, even when he fully knows that he doesn’t stand a chance against Corbett in a fistfight. After making the crack, Horn does his best to escape from Corbett, but he is caught and beaten black and blue. By the time Cattle company owner, John Coble (Richard Farnsworth ), finds him in the livery stable, he is unconscious and badly bruised. McQueen didn’t have to do much acting in the scenes in which we see Horn gasping for breath and totally exhausted; because of his illness, he was literally living through it.

One of the most endearing aspects of the film is the interplay between McQueen and Farnsworth, who provides his warm, dignified persona to the benevolent Coble. Horn is hired by Coble to be a ‘regulator’, to root out cattle rustlers who have been systematically robbing Coble and his Grazing association of valuable cattle. Horn  also gets a go-ahead from the U.S. marshal Joe Bell to implement his brand of vigilante justice. Horn soon swings into action, systematically killing of anybody rustling cattle from the association. Horn’s principal tool is his rifle, with which he is remarkably accurate at long distances. The rifle Horn uses to such deadly effect in the film is an original Winchester Model 1876 in .45-60 caliber, fitted with a custom tang sight. Manufactured from 1877-1894, the Model ’76 was obsolete by the turn of the century, when the events of the story take place.  All the available historical sources state that Horn actually used a .30-30 Winchester Model 1894 for his controversial activities.  But that kind of cinematic liberty is par for the course.. We get a terrific Western set piece – Guns, horses, cattle and all – where Horn chases down and kills 3 of the rustlers and leave the fourth alive, so that he could go and tell the others what happened there. But that’s the only major action sequence  in the film; which is very disappointing, both for a Western and being a biopic on such a legendary gunfighter. Half of the film’s 98 minute running time is taken up with the legal proceedings around Horn’s arrest and incarceration. The movie shows Horn as probably not being guilty of the murder of the boy for which he was hanged, but inarticulate and unable to cope with the process that condemns him,  Horn is finally done in by a conspiracy among the ranchers who hired him and then needed to distance themselves from the effects of his work. So a conspiracy is set in motion by the politically ambitious Joe Belle: A young boy tending sheep is shot by a .45-60 and Horn becomes the chief suspect. Belle takes it upon himself to deliver Horn’s confession for the boy’s murder; Belle coaxes a drunk Horn from a saloon and back to his office where a man transcribing their conversation is hidden in the next room. Horn does not admit to the murders but states that “If I did shoot that boy, it was the best shot I ever made and dirtiest trick i ever pulled.“. But the corrupt scribe twists the statement around, making it look like Horn was confessing to the boy’s murder as “It was the best shot i ever made and the dirtiest trick i ever pulled.” Based on this conversation, Horn is arrested for murder and imprisoned. Though Horn gets, what appears to be, a fair trial, it’s obvious that it is biased against him; because everybody has an interest in seeing him hanged; even Horn himself refuse to cooperate with the trial. Making matters even worse, he attempts to escape (but is caught and brought back), which only solidifies the case against him – if he was innocent why would he try to escape?. In the end, court finds Horn guilty as charged and he is subsequently hanged to death.

Tom Horn is a great  example of a standard western in which the hero dies honorably without showing fear. The film also shows the heroes inability in understanding the rapidly changing times and mores; the final courtroom scenes are a very interesting showcase for this, where McQueen’s Horn seems utterly lost and speechless , unable to, or too proud to, defend himself. The dying McQueen makes Horn’s world-weariness and unwillingness to defend himself utterly believable; He portrays the character as never being afraid of anybody, even death. Horn has always been a man of violence; he was hailed and applauded for being a man of violence and he find it hard to grasp why the same people who hired him has now conspired  to hang him for something he has always been good at doing. McQueen is in truly top form as an actor in the final scenes of the film – as his character moves from defiance to cold resolution in accepting his fate. He realizes that the West that produced and nourished him is gone and he does not want to live in the current one. He is ruthlessly used by the emerging capitalist power elite and then sacrificed by the same corrupt, profit-driven system; by the time he realizes this it’s too late, and as a sort of self-punishment or, as a grand gesture befitting a man of the old west, whose philosophy has always been kill or get killed,  he chooses to become the  archetypal martyr. Thus, the story has some strong political undercurrents, which of course is not explored at all in the film. There are a lot of stuff that is not explored in the film, and are left unanswered, mainly the love story between Horn and schoolteacher Glendolene Kimmel( Linda Evans); this is another dimension of Horn that is explored in the film- and like a lot plot points in the film, not very effectively. McQueen makes a wonderfully whimsical lover in this oddball romance, with Kimmel acting as a sort of conscious of the film; calling out Horn for what he is at several points in the film. Horn and Kimmel meet at a party thrown by Coble at his ranch; we see how out of place Horn is in this new world when he is served a lobster for lunch and he cannot make out what it is. All he can mumble is “I’ve never eaten a bug this big in my life“, and he really has a hard time eating that lobster, which is noticed by Kimmel, who is also at the same table. She later describes him as “The Man of the West, Indian Tracker, Scared to death of Lobster“. But as their romance progresses, she slowly becomes aware of the specter of violence that follows him everywhere; one of their romantic sessions is rudely interrupted by a gunslinger, who starts shooting indiscriminately at them until he is  brutally killed by Horn. That’s when she realizes that she doesn’t have much future with Horn, as she coldly tells him: “Someday, you’re going to have to pay for your way of life, Tom. You’re a bad man and I know it. And if I let you talk me out of it, I’ll be lost forever. So my adventures in this life won’t mean anything because you will have seduced my soul…and drawn me into your world. Goodbye, Tom.” But the problem is that this love story is very crudely integrated into the body of the film; either as awkward inserts or contrived flashbacks, mainly when Horn is imprisoned. This  effectively neutralizes its emotional impact and it comes across as tagged on and unnecessary, even though it could have been one of the high points of the film.

One of the true highlights of the film are its dialogues, it’s an endlessly quotable film; some of the words directly taken from Horn himself, like his last words, to the sheriff: “Keep your nerve, Sam, ’cause I’m gonna keep mine.” or the time he tells Kimmel, who admires him for being a link to the romantic ‘Old West’: “If you really knew how dirty and raggedy-assed the Old West was, you wouldn’t want any part of it”.  Slim Pickens makes a scene stealing cameo as Sheriff Sam Creedmore, who has to hang Horn and hates himself for it. Horn is hanged with an automated gallows, that is powered by water (this becomes another metaphor for modern technology destroying men of the old west like Horn) . Horn is not impressed by this modern apparition and says that he feels like he is committing suicide – as opposed to the heroic death every warrior of the old west seeks. But then he deadpans and rather pensively tells the Sheriff  “I guess that’s what i have been doing all these years“. Yup!, he finally realizes that every violent act he committed in his life were far from heroic, and was just leading him to this moment where he is ‘literally’ committing suicide. Whatever flaws the film has, one cannot complain about the last act (of the film and Horn’s life), the film really comes alive in its final portions. The elaborately filmed final moments of Horn’s hanging are deeply moving, with McQueen’s gaunt visage and melancholic, weather-beaten face adding a lot to the moment. The fact that McQueen himself was dying when he shot the scene makes it heartrendingly poignant and sincere. The night before he was set to do the stunt hanging, McQueen’s then wife Barbara called him and told him she had had a bad dream, a premonition about the hanging, and begged him not to do it. He assured her he wouldn’t, but then he being Steve McQueen, he did it anyway. As it would turn out, McQueen would make just one more film: the modern-day bounty hunter flick The Hunter; bringing his career full circle; because it was the role of a bounty hunter on CBS television’s Wanted: Dead or Alive that made him a household name and jump started his acting career. But The Hunter turned out to be a very forgettable movie; Tom Horn is a more fitting farewell to one of the most charismatic, stylish, maverick and rebellious stars of all times. The only frustration is that the film could have been truly great – rather than great only in patches – if only it had a strong director and uniform vision to mold this very interesting material. Guess that’s something the film has in common with Tom Horn and Steve McQueen; extremely potent, gifted, but rather uneven and self-destructive.

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2 thoughts on “Tom Horn: Steve McQueen transcends his cool persona and delivers a deeply moving performance as the legendary Western folk hero

  1. Great pity that he never made Apocalypse Now or failed to work with more great directors (Peckinpah not withstanding). Good thoughts on a failed film.

    Liked by 1 person

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