Comes a Horseman: James Caan and Jane Fonda saddles up for a moody ’70s Western from Alan J. Pakula

Comes a Horseman(1978) is a moody, meditative, revisionist Western directed by Alan J. Pakula. The film stars Jane Fonda, James Caan, Richard Farnsworth and Jason Robards.

Alan J. Pakula, Gordon Willis, James Caan, Jane Fonda, these are not names one usually associate with the Western genre. Director, Pakula, is more famous for his paranoid thrillers like “Klute,” “Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men.” Cinematographer Gordon Willis is famous as “the prince of Darkness,” the man who is adept at shooting moody, intimate. interior dramas like “The Godfather” films, Woody Allen films and Pakula films. James Caan and Jane Fonda are the quintessential New-Hollywood method actors who won accolades for such ’70s dramas like “Klute,” “The Godfather,” “Coming Home” and “The Gambler.” Yet, all of them pooled in their talents to create quite a different sort of Western with the 1978 release, “Comes a Horseman.” Not that all these people are completely alien to this genre: Pakula, before he became a director, was a producer who produced a superb Western in “The Stalking Moon (1968),” starring Gregory Peck and Eva Marie Saint; Gordon Willis has photographed the 1972 ‘acid western‘ “Bad Company”; Caan was in Howard Hawks’ classic Western, “El Dorado,” alongside John Wayne and Robert Mitchum; and Jane Fonda, the daughter of Henry Fonda, was in “Cat Ballou (1965).” “Comes a Horseman” is a semi-modern Western. It’s not set in the classical Western period of 1880s, but in the 1940s Montana, in the dying days of WWII. The Western iconography depicted in the film, including its basic plot of a powerful, greedy cattle baron attempting to usurp the land of smalltime independent ranchers, is straight out of classical Hollywood. But the film’s meditative style, exploration of character psychology and the more realistic acting style adopted by the actors is very reminiscent of the ’70s revisionist Westerns. The production design and cinematography imparts a sense of timelessness to the film’s visuals. Like most of ’70s films (and Pakula’s films), this is an adult, character-driven, atmospheric drama that’s more concerned with moods, character behavior and character interactions in a deeply atmospheric setting than with plot mechanics.

This film’s plot is very similar to the previous Pakula-Fonda collaboration, “Klute.” In both films, Fonda plays a strong, independent, working woman who comes under attack from a powerful, shadowy male figure, and in comes a hero to support her in her fight and, ultimately, save her. “Comes a Horseman” also casts Fonda in the stoic, heroic mold of her father’s Western heroes. Fonda is Ella Connors, a rancher struggling to make ends meet. Her ranch is situated in a large fertile valley ideal for grazing cattle; and all land, except hers, in this basin is owned by Rancher Jacob W. Ewing (Jason Robards). The Ewing family has lived in the valley for generations, and his dream is to own all of it and preserve it for future generations, even though he has no heir – his only son died fighting in WWII. The death of his son only accentuates Ewing’s desire to take over the whole basin; which means that he’s kind of an unhinged character, walking a thin line between mad ambition and madness; and it’s only a matter of time before he falls right over into total madness. Since Ella is the only one left in the basin, naturally Ewing starts working towards getting her evicted from her land. What complicates things further is the fact that Ella and Ewing has a bad history- Ewing seduced Ella when she was just a girl, she ended the affair after Ewing used it to publicly humiliate her father. Now Ella hates Ewing, but Ewing still desires her and hopes to start a new family with her, so that the Ewing family will live on. Ella had sold a part of her land to two returning GIs, Frank (James Caan) & Billy (Mark Harmon), to keep herself financially afloat. As part of taking full control of the basin, Ewing has one of his henchmen shoot and kill these two cowboys; but while Billy dies from the bullet, Frank, though severely wounded, manages to kill the assassin.

Frank is rescued by Ella’s aging but skillful cowhand Dodger (Richard Farnsworth), who takes the wounded Frank to Ella’s house. Though hostile to Frank in the beginning, Ella does help him in his recovery and, later, when he is fully fit, hires him as a cowhand. Once Frank joins Ella and Dodger in running the ranch, it begins to prosper- much to the chagrin of Ewing, who was counting on Ella not surviving another season, as she was neck deep in bank debt and her ranch was in such poor shape. Ewing is also resentful of the presence of the new man, Frank, in Ella’s life, as he was hoping that Ella would come back to him. To make matters worse for Ewing, his partner and financier, the wealthy oil executive, Neil Atkinson, who helped Ewing buy out neighboring ranchers (taking advantage of their financial problems and with some persuasion from Ewing’s thugs), wants to dig for oil on Ewing’s ranch. When Ewing would not allow his land to be violated, Neil uses his financial clout to pressure him to comply. But the results of the oil exploration are negative, and the explorers conclude that whatever oil is present in the basin is on Ella’s land. Since Ella is going to survive another year, Neil will have to wait out that time. But till that time Neil needs to protect himself from Ewing, so he decides to use the bank and take over Ewing’s entire ranch, turning Ewing into a nominal owner without any power over his land. Seeing all his dreams slipping away, Ewing becomes totally deranged; and, with the help of his henchmen, he plans to eliminate all his foes- Neil, the banker, Frank, Ella… everyone.

“Comes a Horseman” was Pakula’s immediate follow-up to his most critically and commercially successful film, “All the President’s Men.” This was truly a courageous move: to make a personal Western based on an original screenplay (written by Dennis Lynton Clark) with not many stars after making a sprawling political thriller about one of the most notorious events in American history with two of the biggest superstars, Redford and Hoffman. Of course, one appreciates Pakula’s courage, but the attempt is only partially successful. The film suffers from the same problem that afflicts a lot of films made by serious auteurs, when they try to give a personal and serious spin to a wildly popular genre; that’s it become pretentious. Pakula is striving to make an important film by adopting a serious approach to many of the genre’s tropes (or clichés), and he is not fully successful in classing up the existent tropes, while this self-importance mars the film from connecting with the audience. There are several instances where this excessive self-seriousness makes the film sluggish to the point of the narrative coming to standstill. The entire portion, where Farnsworth’s Dodger gets thrown of his horse, then is bedridden, and then he rides of to die in the wilderness, that lasts almost 15 minutes gives a good opportunity for Farnsworth to display his acting skills (he was the film’s lone Oscar nomination- for supporting actor) but it makes for excruciating viewing. Also tiring are the frequent conversations (or run ins) between Ewing and Neil about taking control of the basin- which is shot with the same reverence and dark atmosphere as Redford’s conversations with Holbrook’s ‘Deep Throat.’

It’s interesting to note that, despite this being a revisionist taken on the genre, the film manages to encompass almost all the tropes and character archetypes of a classic Western- there are cattle drives, a cattle stampede very reminiscent of the one in “Red River,” Barroom brawls, romance and scenes of communal gettogethers with music and dancing (straight from any John Ford Western, particularly “My Darling Clementine,” starring Henry Fonda), the evil rancher, stoic heroes, an old coot (in the mold of Walter Brennan) helping out the heroes and a climactic shootout between good guys and bad guys. Now this climactic shootout gives us a good indication as to why Pakula is not cut out to make Westerns. In his attempt to put a revisionist spin on this much beloved Western trope, Pakula converts it into an unintentionally funny and campy sequence- providing it with a part-gothic, part-apocalyptic twist, with Ewing, first burning down Ella’s ranch house, and then Ewing and his henchmen riding out of the smoke like the ‘horsemen of the apocalypse,’ with Michael Small’s otherwise minimalist music suddenly rising to a thundering crescendo. I must say that there is no humor in the film, Westerns usually have lots of humor, but this one has none (except for some very very understated humor in a scene where Ella and Frank bargains with a buyer about the price of their cattle), that’s how serious this is, but for me this climax scene makes up for all the lack of humor; if found it so funny that I just couldn’t stop laughing. The climax is the weakest part of this film- the attack and the subsequent shootout is so clumsily staged and edited together (in a film that’s so well shot) that one can only watch it ironically to make sense of it. By the way a stuntman who was doubling for Robarts in this scene was killed when the horse dragging him lost control and his head hit a fence post. The scene is partially there in the movie.

This does not mean that all of Pakula’s methods are ineffective. The slow evolution of the Ella-Frank relationship is one of the best aspects of the film. Usually in Westerns, the cowboy and the girl meets, and the very next moment they are in love and even in bed together. But here both the man and woman are damaged people, the woman more than the man, and she takes her time in warming up to the man, especially because she is the dominant partner; she is the employer and he is the employee. The relationship progresses and their romance blossoms through a very relatable series of events. We know that ultimately these two people will fall in love, but Pakula does not rush things in any way; first Frank proves his worth as a cowboy, then she slowly starts trusting him, trusting enough to tell him her dirty secret involving Ewing, and she finds him very understanding. Then Dodger dies and they are united in this pain as well. The first time they make love, we never see how it starts; there is no slow buildup through visuals or music to that all important moment; Pakula just cuts to them waking up in bed together, it’s almost treated as a natural progression of their growing intimacy- they drive cattle together, they are fighting Ewing together, they are fixing the windmill together, then they are in bed together. Later, in the scene where they bargain hard for the selling price of their cattle, we know that they are now a perfect team, a perfect couple. Another nice touch that Pakula adds to the film is in its ending- throughout the film one gets the feeling that we are watching one of those end-of-the -west Westerns, the ‘passing of an era’ kind of film; where the protagonists leave ranching behind and move into a more modern world. Ella and Frank had also planned that once they have sold their herd, they will sell their ranch and move into town, as it’s become financially difficult to sustain a ranching business. But in the final scene, we see both Ella and Frank rebuilding the ranch, after it has been burnt down by Ewing, and looking to continue with ranching. So, the film ends on a very optimistic note, especially for a revisionist Western.

The performances of the actors are uniformly good. James Caan may look too modern and too eastern to fit comfortably in a Western (Hawks actually put this discomfort to good use by casting Caan as a clumsy gunfighter in “El Dorado”) but he gives a good performance as the war vet turned cowhand. He gives an atypical lowkey performance here, far removed from his restless, gregarious performances. He embodies the strong & silent cowboy archetype pretty well. Caan’s casting is one of the bravest things attempted in the film by Pakula and thankfully it did not backfire. Jane Fonda is more sullen than usual and less glamorous; keeping in with the ’70s aesthetic, as a rancher and cowgirl, Fonda does not use any makeup: her lips are free of lipstick, her face sunburnt,, her hair unkept and she wear very ordinary clothes. She is very convincing as the bitter but resilient woman who would go up against a powerful rancher. Through very subtle gestures and body language, she develops her character much more deeply than what’s there in the script. Jason Robards is saddled with a very confusingly written role. I think the idea was to not make him a one-dimensional bad guy by giving the character some layers, but since these layers are not fully developed, it never becomes a full-bodied character. Robards, who was dazzling in such revisionist Westerns as “Hour of the Gun” and “Once upon a time in the West,” does his best with the role, and some of his confrontation scenes with Fonda work very well. But by the end he becomes as a sort of standard Western bad guy. And, as already Mentioned, Richard Farnsworth, is really good as a more dignified and intelligent version of Walter Brennan; of the cast, he is the only actor who is completely comfortable on a horse and in that Western milieu . Farnsworth, who started his career as a stuntman in the ’30s, finally got a full fledged role to showcase his acting talents and he makes the most of it. This is the movie debut of Mark Harmon and he has just about couple of scenes.

The real star of the film is the great cinematographer Gordon Willis, who proves that not only can he shoot an outdoor Western brilliantly, but also shoot it in a slightly different style than how a Western is usually shot. He adds subtexts to the narrative with his photography without shortchanging the visual beauty of the piece and accentuating the emotional impact of it. Right from the opening shot, where we see a couple of cowboys driving cattle through the valley and there is a funeral taking place high above on the cliff adjacent to the horizon, we know that we are in for a visually breathtaking experience. Willis and Pakula puts a new spin to classic John Ford images of a Western horizon and funeral, by linking the death of Ewing’s son in WWII with the cowboys driving cattle below; the cowboys, who are relieved that they did not continue in the war, as they would have been dead like Ewing’s son, will soon find out that Ewing has bought the war to this Western wilderness, and it will lead to the death of one of them. The attack on the cowboys by Ewing’s henchman is also shot in a very different way- this night scene starts out rather playfully but then the mood changes suddenly, as Billy is shot and killed by a gunman hiding in the darkness; the whole scene is done in a long shot, depicting the cowboys as nothing more than specks in a wide open land. This concept of humans being tiny figures in this gigantic landscape and their existence amounting to nothing much in this world is driven home in most of the big outdoor scenes. Not just their presence but their words are also made insignificant by shooting most of the dialogue scenes in either medium or long shots- the camera is always a little further away from the actor than usual when he\she is talking; the majestic landscape always towering over him\her,. Sometimes, the camera gets too close to the actors than usual – particularly in the cattle stampede sequence, when Caan and Fonda mount up and chase after the cattle – giving a sense of the characters being stationary, despite their best efforts to move forward, while the world around them is fast moving and leaving them behind. Apart from that, even the random frames has an offbeat quality to them- some object or prop strategically placed in the edges of the frame to give some extra dimensions to the scene. The film looks fantastic to say the least and one can keep revisiting it just for its visual virtuosity. Gordon Willis was an American treasure who never got the accolades he deserved. It’s shocking to know that though he worked on some of the most pathbreaking films in American history, he never won a competitive Oscar and was nominated just twice. He was finally given a honorary Oscar long after he had retired from movies; but that was just small compensation.

“Comes a Horseman” was a big box office failure upon its release; it’s understandable, as it is neither a very good film nor an audience pleasing one. But like all ’70s Westerns attempted by auteur directors, this is (flaws and all) a most interesting one. I guess Pakula was following other iconic ’70s directors who around this time were putting their own spin on the Western genre. Arthur Penn made the brilliant “Little Big Man” as well as the bizarre “The Missouri Breaks”; Sam Peckinpah made the brilliant “The Wild Bunch” and a badly mutilated “Pat Garrett and Billy Kid.” By the end of the ’70s, the auteurs and their Westerns were failing to find acceptance with either critics or the audiences, and this film too is part of that series. Of course, everything will come crashing down when Michael Cimino made his own epic take on the Western with “Heaven’s Gate.” That film sounded the death knell for not only the Western genre, but also for the auteur driven New-Hollywood cinema.


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