Macho and savage, The Horsemen is a sports movie for only the hardtiest of viewers. Set in modern-day Afghanistan (circa the early ’70s), the picture concerns the brutal sport of buzkashi—think polo, but with longer playing times and with a headless goat carcass in lieu of a ball. Exploring themes such as male identity and primitive codes of honor, The Horsemen is mildly fascinating as an ethnographic study, but it’s not an easy film for Westerners to embrace. Even though The Horsemen relies on certain clichés that are common to most sports movies (and most stories about fathers and sons), the picture is so thick with virility that it’s a sonnet to manly suffering. In The Horsemen, the best man isn’t the one who wins, per se; it’s the man who endures the most pain in the pursuit of winning.
Based on a novel by Joseph Kessel and written by the formidable Dalton Trumbo—whose previous collaboration with Horseman director John Frankenheimer, 1968’s The Fixer, was just as tough and uncompromising—the movie revolves around a young man trying to win the respect of his unyielding father. Jack Palace, wearing a mist of old-age makeup over his leathery features, plays Tursen, a retired buzkashi player who makes a humble but respectable living tending horses for a wealthy landowner. After grooming his son, Uraz (Omar Sharif), to become a buzkashi champion, Tursen places a huge wager on Uraz’s performance in a match, only to watch Uraz lose. Never mind that Uraz suffers a broken leg; broken pride is all that matters here. Much of the film comprises Uraz’s excruciating quest to rehabilitate his body for a return to the game, and since this is a merciless Frankenheimer film, the cure is far worse than the disease.
The Horsemen looks amazing, with cinematographers André Domage, James Wong Howe, and Claude Renoir conveying the stark majesty of the Afghan landscape—to say nothing of the ferocious action during buzkashi matches. Unfortunately, neither Palance nor Sharif is sufficiently expressive to deliver all of the subtle nuances inherent to the material. They convey a certain undeniable primal intensity, and each has affecting moments, but the film would have benefited from performers with broader emotional palettes. Faring even worse than the male leads is beautiful Leigh Taylor-Young, cast as a fallen woman who enters Uraz’s life. While she looks blazingly sexy with her long, dark hair and smoky eye makeup, Taylor-Young is merely ornamental to a story that’s all about men and their animalistic drives to impress each other.
The Horsemen: FUNKY