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calendar   Friday - January 01, 2010

Film School

I just finished watching Tom Horn, Steve McQueen’s 1980 eulogy to westerns, and perhaps to himself. He died from mesothelioma just a short time after the film was completed. At first, this seemed to be a confused film, especially with the dream sequences/flashbacks Tom Horn has while in jail. They were totally unexpected. But I quickly adapted. McQueen’s Tom Horn is a rough man mostly by necessity, a man past his time, a survivor of the “raggedy-assed Old West” who finds himself a fish out of water in the duplicitous early 20th century, but still tries to do what he knows best, which is hunting down the bad guys and outgunning them. But he embodies The Cowboy Code to the letter without even trying. I doubt if Horn has 200 words of dialog in the whole film, not even speaking up in his own defense at his rigged murder trial, stoically knowing that the verdict is going to be whatever those in power want it to be. And in homage to that same Code, this little gem of a film is a distillate; it’s everything a cowboy movie should be, boiled down to the leather hard essentials, but with a realistic worldview that eclipses the standard moral tale. Which may be the ultimate moral tale anyway: do your best, but things are going to happen anyway. Linda Evans puts in an appearance as the school marm romance interest, looking nice but more than a bit weathered; another layer of realism on the old genre. And what would any western be without Slim Pickens? He’s in there as the Sherrif, not aww-shucks-ing it up for once, just a decent man trying to do a decent job but out of his depth in the new world order. It’s a shame Gabby Hays wasn’t still alive to find a niche roll in here too, but frankly it would have been little more than a cameo. There is no comic relief in this one. McQueen was always best as the anti-hero, and those types are best showcased against a dark backdrop.

I got the DVD from my friend Doc, who either loves the film because he owns the same kind of rifle, or bought the same kind of rifle because he loves the film. No matter. The big 1876 Winchester in .45-60 is just as huge in real life as it is in Horn’s hands. Big Medicine, and in Horn’s hands it drops rustlers and their horses with aplomb. And scares the daylights out of the townsfolk. Heck, all the guns shown and talked about are right for the period, from the black powder arms to the top-break S&W/H&R to the big old Colt Walker to the Krags the National Guard carries to the never seen “German automatic” that one of the lawmen alludes to having [ie a broomhandle Mauser]. Blew my mind, remembering that Once Upon A Time Hollywood knew how to do that right. They even need reloading after 5 or 6 shots, and the pistoleros can’t hit for shit past 35 yards. A miracle.

I haven’t seen a real western in ages. No, that latter day bang-bang crap like “The Quick and the Dead” doesn’t count. In today’s era of zillion dollar CGI and PC subtexts, watching this one was a step back in time to a simple score, a simple and natural mise-en-scene, and a small cast telling a simple story that turned out to have a deep and complex message.

This film pretty much bombed in theaters, since westerns were tired out back then, but it’s worth renting. You get to see McQueen at his effortless best, filling out a role and not trying to be Steve McQueen for once. But you know the man is dying. You can see it in his face and the way he moves. But just like Horn, he soldiers on because it’s all that he knows how to do, accepting the future without quite knowing what’s going on or how he got there. You might have to rent a few John Ford and a couple Clint Eastwood westerns ahead of time to refresh yourself with the genre, so that you’ll recognize the 90 minutes of art that this one is.


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Posted by Drew458   United States  on 01/01/2010 at 10:52 PM   
Filed Under: • Hollywood •  
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