Like so many movie stars who epitomize a particular romantic ideal, Steve McQueen’s reign as a box-office champ was surprisingly brief. He found success on television with the 1958-1961 Western series Wanted: Dead or Alive, then became a proper marquee name with his breakout role in the ensemble adventure The Great Escape (1963) before peaking with action/thriller pictures including Bullitt (1968). By the mid-’70s, however, McQueen was basically over. That is, until he mounted a two-film comeback attempt in 1980. Alas, McQueen’s return to glory was not meant to be. The actor died from a heart attack at age 50 while receiving treatment for the cancer that his doctors discovered after McQueen completed production on his last movie, The Hunter. While both of McQueen’s final films are palatable distractions, neither is remarkable, and, quite frankly, neither suggests McQueen had much gas left in the tank. Released in March 1980, Tom Horn is an elegiac Western about a cowboy forced to pay for his violent life. Released in August 1980, The Hunter is the lighthearted story of a modern-day bounty hunter. Both pictures are based upon real people, and both roles suit McQueen well.
Tom Horn, the better of the two pictures, explores the unique quandary faced by gunslingers during the historical moment when the Wild West gave way to civilization, with all the petty corruptions that word entails. The real Tom Horn was a Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt, and he helped capture Geronimo. By 1901, he was a relic—a bit like McQueen circa 1979, when the picture was shot. While drifting through Wyoming, Tom (McQueen) meets gentleman rancher John Coble (Richard Farnsworth), who hires Tom to help roust a troublesome band of rustlers. Working on behalf of John and a consortium of fellow ranchers, Tom dispatches the varmints permanently, killing them one by one. Even though he’s following orders and operating within the law, Tom’s bloody campaign gains unwanted attention, because the ranchers want Wyoming to seem like a peaceful paradise. Therefore, when Tom is arrested for the murder of an innocent man, it sure seems as if some nefarious soul framed Tom in order to make him go away. (The film, with a script credited to Bud Shrake and Thomas McGuane, retains ambiguity about the critical shooting.)
The second half of Tom Horn comprises a kangaroo-court trial, though the real thrust of the inquiry is exploring the necessity of free-roaming gunmen in the 20th century. Director William Wiard does an okay job of infusing Tom Horn with fatalism (at one point Horn muses, “Do you know how raggedy-ass and terrible the West really was?”), and he tries valiantly to emulate John Ford’s sweeping vistas. However, Wiard isn’t much for generating real dramatic energy, and the casting of vapid Linda Evans in the female lead dooms the film’s romantic subplot. McQueen seems tired throughout the movie, which fits the character, but a distracting sense of listlessness pervades Tom Horn’s 98 pokey minutes.
Offering a different look at similar subject matter, The Hunter is a more accomplished piece of work, but not in a good way—the movie is so slick and tidy that it feels like the pilot for a TV series instead of a proper feature. McQueen plays Ralph “Papa” Thorson, a gruff but loveable hired gun who chases bail jumpers across the country. Packing a .45 and perpetually griping that he’s too old for this shit, Papa treats bad men without mercy but cuts all kinds of slack for misguided ne’er-do-wells, even providing employment to some of the people he captures. Director Buzz Kulik has fun staging action scenes, including a chase across a farm involving cars and a tractor, as well as the centerpiece sequence revolving around an elevated train in Chicago. Domestic scenes are less impressive, because McQueen and leading lady Kathryn Harrold—as Papa’s pregnant girlfriend—share anemic, sitcom-style banter about commitment and Lamaze classes. Worse, the film’s climax is so trite that it’s nearly comical, and the myriad scenes designed to inform viewers that “Papa” is brave, eccentric, noble, old-fashioned, or just plain wonderful get tiresome after a while.
Nonetheless, Tom Horn and The Hunter capture something important about McQueen, even if both are disappointing in different ways. In the ’60s, McQueen was the quintessential man of his moment. Just as McQueen did, the moment passed quickly through this world, leaving an indelible impression.
Tom Horn: FUNKY
The Hunter: FUNKY