Robert Redford and Director Sydney Pollack teamed up for the fifth time for this very entertaining modern-day, Romance-Western that features Jane Fonda, John Saxon and Willie Nielsen in major roles.
“For me it was a chance to demonstrate my own particular affinity for horses, but the film is also about a way of life out West whose disappearance is sad but inevitable. Still, at the heart of the story is a man whose sensitivity is towards a horse,”Robert Redford on The Electric Horseman
In Sydney Pollack’s The Electric Horseman, Robert Redford plays Norman ‘Sonny’ Steele, a retired rodeo champion who has now sold himself out to a Cereal corporation, AMPCO, to peddle their breakfast cereal,. The film marked the debut acting performance of long-time country and western singer Willie Nelson, who not only plays the role of Sonny Steele’s handler, Wendell Hickson, but also contributed significantly to the film’s soundtrack as well, singing five songs including “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”, “Midnight Rider,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “So You Think You’re a Cowboy” and “Hands on the Wheel.” Of this, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” is used extensively in the film, and goes a long way in setting the mood for this Western parable that mourns the death of the Cowboy way of life and the old-west. Redford’s Steele represents American West that has being systematically taken over and destroyed by commercial interests. The film opens with a montage showing Steele’s fall from grace: his transformation from champion to Cereal peddler, which is even reflected in his physical features- a fresh-faced, clean-cut Redford transforming into an aging, mustachioed figure. He gets trussed up with flashing lights atop a horse and appears at rodeos, mall openings, state fairs and all kinds of venues to talk about cereal; a cereal that he himself does not eat. Redford, who himself is a Western icon, having made his career by starring in some classic Westerns like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Jeremiah Johnson”, being paraded in garish costumes at gaudy venues makes for a strong ‘meta’ commentary about the decline of the West (and the Western as well). But, since it’s Redford, we know that there’s going to be a heroic resurgence for the character, and the character’s redemption is triggered by three events. First: when Sonny arrives for a typical stadium appearance, drunken and tardy as usual, only to see an impostor adorned in the same costumes and lights as him riding a horse around a field to the cheers of the audience. “That’s not me,” Redford observes to the promoter, The promoter fires back that it doesn’t matter as the cheering crowds does not know the difference. That’s when Steele realizes his own worthlessness; that his days are numbered in this profession and he has no identity of his own anymore. Next, when Steele reaches Las Vegas for a promotion event, he’s confronted by Halle Martin(Jane Fonda), an aggressive New York TV reporter; at the press conference, she asks him how does it feel to be peddling cereal, after being such a rodeo champion for so long. Steele is tongue-tied for a moment, barely managing to get a wisecrack out; it’s obvious that the question hurts him very much, and every time he runs into Hallie form hereon is a painful experience for him.
Steele is in Las Vegas to ride a champion thoroughbred- named “Rising Star”- out on a stage filled with dancing girls. But he’s shocked to see that the horse is drugged up and miserable. He tries to take up the issue with AMPCO’s head, Hunt Sears(John Saxon), but finds him indifferent to the horse’s plight. Obviously, Sonny sees a lot of himself in the horse, and the fact that how the horse is mistreated resonates with Steele on how he has been mistreating himself. The final blow that breaks Steele’s back comes in the form of his estranged wife, Charlotta (Valerie Perrine). She’s in town to get the divorce papers signed by Steele, which he has been dodging for too long. After some hurtful quips about his life and appearance from his wife, Steele gives in and signs the papers. Now, he realizes that there’s nothing left in this life for him anymore, and he decides to abandon it and return back to the wilderness of the West, but before he does that, he wants to free the horse as well; perhaps to do one worthwhile thing in his life, or as a symbolic gesture; freeing the horse is the first step towards freeing himself. To this end, Sonny rides the horse off the Las Vegas stage, down the strip, and out into the desert where his friend Gus (Will Hare) loans him a camper. Horse in camper, he takes off for Utah, where he intends to set the horse free, though nobody knows this at this point, except him. For the rest of the world, he’s a drunken cowboy who stole a $12 million horse.
Of course, this does not sit well with AMPCO, who’s readying for a merger (or takeover) with Omni Bank. If the news spread that they cannot take care of their horse, it automatically translates that they cannot take care of the company. Result: no merger, which will be devastating for the company and its head, Sears. They put the cops after Steele, but to no avail; only Hallie manages to track down Steele, and after some initial animosity between the two, she comes to realize that his intentions are noble. She manages to get the snappy Steele to talk about the horse on camera, and then, puts the clip of him talking about the horse’s terrible condition on air that gains him massive support from the entire country. But the police are still after them, and when Sonny spots a police roadblock in St. George, Utah, he takes the horse out the back of the camper and gallops away, resulting in a very funny and action-packed chase sequence, in which Rising star manages to outrun the cops. In that moment, both the horse and the rider are back in their glory days, and it’s more than obvious that the horse is responding to being out in the natural surroundings and to Steel’s ‘Eucalyptus’ treatment, and is well on the road to recovery. But Steele’s plan for freeing the horse is put in jeopardy when Hallie guesses the location for the horse’s redemption to be Rimrock Canyon, and makes sure that the press personnel are present there for the occasion. Meanwhile, Hallie and Steele had fallen in love and now Halie’s remorseful for divulging the location to the world; if Steele ventures out there with the horse, he’s sure to be arrested. But, Steele still has some surprises up his sleeve, and manages to complete his ‘free the horse’ mission successfully.
While watching the film, i was struck by the fact that how closely the character of Norman ‘Sonny’ Steele resembled Robert Redford at that point of time in his career. In the film, Steele’s redemption arrives when he decides to steal a thoroughbred horse that has been drugged and abused by the same corporate owners- the horse is AMPCO’s corporate symbol- who has enslaved him as well, and ride him across the country to a canyon where he can be set free to have a life of its own. Substitute Rodeo Champion turned corporate sellout, Steele with Idealistic actor turned bigtime commercial superstar Redford and the horse with ‘cinema’, then you get the idea; because soon after this film, Redford would redeem himself by, first, directing his own brand of independent film, The Ordinary people (1980), for which he will win Oscars for best director and picture; and second, by starting the Sundance film institute for the cause of independent cinema that, along with its film festival, will become the strongest champion of independent cinema movement in America. Redford was studying to be a painter when he bit the acting bug, and in the mold of a quintessential New York actor, he started out in stage and Television and then graduated to film. It will take him exactly a decade since he started out in theater to achieve movie stardom, though he has been acting in small and big parts all through the 1960s. It was the success of “Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid(1969)” that turned Redford into a genuine movie star, and later, the double whammy of “The Sting” and “The Way we where” in 1973 would turn him into a superstar and one of the biggest stars on the planet.
Before he hit big time stardom, Redford was an actor with a independent\individualistic streak, producing and acting in off-beat films like “Downhill Racer” and “Jeremiah Johnson”, but once he became a superstar, he was no longer a maverick, and was doing mainly mainstream commercial fare, which coasted on his all-American good looks and star charisma more than anything else. His friend and frequent co-star Jane Fonda- who had done two films with him before he hit stardom- the 1966 “The Chase” and the 1967 “Barefoot in the Park”- had publicly criticized him for assimilating himself totally into the Hollywood studio-star system. Now, one could say that anybody in comparison to the firebrand Fonda would appear to be a conformist; and to be fair to Redford, he had championed risky projects like “All the President’s Men”; but the perception remained that he was an actor who made safe star-vehicles with his frequent collaborator Sydney Pollack, who, by his own admission made middlebrow, mainstream commercial films with stars. Pollock & Redford’s is one of the most durable and successful (critically and commercially) actor & director collaborations; in the mold of a John Ford & John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart & John Huston. They made 7 films together, starting with “This Property is condemned” in 1966. In all their films, Redford played pretty much the same character, albeit set in different places and time periods. It’s less a character more a symbol or a cipher of a certain kind of American male; in these films, Redford epitomized the obsessively individualistic American hero, who prefers to be alone rather than give up a part of himself to be with the woman he loves, or be successful and be part of the civilized society; Redford’s characters always exist on the borderline between civilization and the untamed wilderness in these films, which features prickly love stories involving strong female leads at their center; but the love stories remain unrequited at the end, with Redford renouncing the opportunity to be one with a civilized society and to be happily united with his ladylove; instead, choosing to walk away and wander in the wilderness. The Electric Horseman is their Fifth collaboration, and falls into the same category, though it’s more lighthearted and lightweight than all their other films; and ironically, Redford managed to get Fonda to co-star with him in what’s exactly the kind of ‘mainstream fluff’ that Fonda had previously criticized Redford for indulging in.
Before this film, Pollock and Redford were planning a very ambitious adaptation of “A Place to Come to.” When that fell through, Pollock had to quickly find a new script as the start-date for shooting was fast approaching. That’s when he decided to take out a script from his shelf that was lying with him since 1973; the only problem was that the script only had the first act, and it ended with Steele riding away with the horse in Las Vegas. To cook up the the next two acts, Pollock decided to fall back on his usual routine; which is to develop a love story as the centerpiece of the film. Pollock has often said that it’s impossible for him to be interested in making a movie if it does not have a love story at its center. Thus the character of the journalist, Hallie Martin, was introduced. When the shooting began, they had only 40 pages of script and the character of Hallie was yet to be written. Jane Fonda signed on for the film based on blind trust in Pollock and Redford; she had worked with both of them in the past, and much of the scenes and dialogues were made up as they went along. Which explains the kind of loose, improvisational quality the film possesses. Pollock joked at the time that his philosophy in scouting locations was that “find me the farthest location, so that i can finish writing the scene by the time we get there”. So it’s a miracle that the film works so well as it does, and much of the credit should go to the lead pair; not just for their great chemistry, but their ability to breathe conviction into the most contrived of moments. Also, their star-power or their star-charisma, whatever you wish to call it, that these stars possessed, and these were the last of great movie superstars, as opposed to the media made stars or the non-existent stars of today. If you really want to know what star charisma means, you should watch these two in action, especially Redford; because Fonda is more of a ‘method’ actress, but Redford is a true blue American movie star\actor: a pure cinematic actor, who knows how to perform strictly for the camera. He conveys a hell of a lot with very little effort, and his line readings are always gold, especially the funny ones. My favorite line being in the scene where Steele and Hallie wakes up in the outdoors and Hallie urges Steele to eat; “They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” insists Hallie; “I- I know,” retorts Steele, and with a mixture of hesitation and disbelief as he delivers the punchline: “I’m the one that said it.”- taking a sarcastic shot at his own career as the breakfast Cereal peddler.
At one level, the film plays as a gender-reverse version of Frank Capra’s “It Happened one Night”; here Jane Fonda is the scoop-hungry reporter tagging after the protagonist, who wants to escape into nature’s freedom, and in many places the film does have the look and feel of the old-fashioned Hollywood screwball comedy. The making of the film is also very old-fashioned; Pollock was never a stylist or a technically cutting edge filmmaker, but even by his standards, the filmmaking is just serviceable, and the film could very easily be mistaken for a film made in the 1940s or 50s. It doesn’t feel like a 70s film at all; 70s films were mainly cynical, dark and more technically innovative. This is a very bright, optimistic film in the mold of Frank Capra films, and the films that were made mostly in the 1980s. The film also resembles the simple, morally simplistic, technicolor Westerns of yore; this is a Western without gunfights or cattle stampedes- except for that ‘Keystone cops’ style action scene where the cowboy riding the horse is chased by cops in cars, bikes and helicopters, but it still has the basic themes of a Western: the strong bond between the cowboy and his horse; the cowboy’s love for nature and adventure; the turf war between the corporation resembling the evil ranchers of the past (it’s for nothing that the Cereal is named “Ranch”) and the free-spirited cowboy, etc.
The film also brings back memories of other Redford-Pollock Collaborations. Sonny Steele is very similar to Jeremiah Johnson and Turner aka Condor; the man who comes out of a comfy existence to venture into the dangerous wilderness. The relationship between Redford and Fonda is pretty much the same as the one between Redford and Faye Dunaway in “Three Days of Condor”; there Redford kidnapped Dunaway and held her hostage; their relationship developing from there to love; here, Fonda has herself ‘abducted’ to extract an newsworthy story, and then their love story follows; in both cases, the initial animosity gives way to mutual respect and affection, with the woman undergoing a metamorphosis, thanks to their association with the rugged male. Just like Dunaway’s character, Fonda’s character also becomes more adventurous and starts adapting well to surroundings which she initially finds hostile, and ends up becoming the male’s partner in ‘crime’. And the relationship in both cases lasts for only a short while; just a couple of days n the case of Condor, here for just about a week. They are made for each other only for that short time period, not forever, and then they split up and go their separate ways. The audience do not feel any regrets for this, because it’s more than obvious that beyond their shared adventures, they are totally unfit for each other; there’s no way a feisty, sophisticated lady like Hallie can settle down with a wild, roaming male like Steele. The final moments of the film has Halie returning to her desk job, while Steele is lost in the middle of nowhere, trying to hitch a ride. Thus, another one of those very enjoyable and emotionally fulfilling Redford-Pollock melodramas comes to an end. About six years later, Pollock will send the same Redford character to Africa, this time to romance and renounce Meryl Streep in “Out of Africa”, and it would finally win Pollock the much deserved Oscar for Best Director. By the way, The kinship Sonny feels for the horse extended beyond the screen; Redford bought his equine co-star and kept him on his Utah ranch for 18 years. Redford and Fonda would unite yet again, almost 40 years after this film, for Our Souls at Night(2017). This must be some kind of record, where an actor and actress are paired together in 4 films across 50 years.