Sunday, March 19, 2017

Mr. Horn (1979)

          A year before Steve McQueen’s biographical Western movie Tom Horn was released to theaters, an even more detailed recounting of the same historical figure’s life story premiered on television. Sprawling over three very long hours, Mr. Horn has a colorful backstory. Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman penned a script with an eye toward casting frequent collaborator Robert Redford in the leading role of a cowboy who captured Geronimo and enjoyed a celebrated career as a Pinkerton, only to be framed for murder by ranchers who hired him as a bounty hunter. Together with the right director, Goldman and Redford could easily have transformed this material into something complicated and mythic. Alas, Redford left the project, as did proposed director Sydney Pollack, so Goldman’s script became an orphan even as McQueen’s competing project gained steam. Hence the downgrade to the small screen, with David Carradine assuming the title role.
          Seeing as how the broadcast version of Mr. Horn is essentially two movies—a 90-minute saga depicting the hunt for Geronimo and a 90-minute saga depicting the intrigue with the ranchers—it’s hard to imagine how the project would have worked as a feature. Yet the episodic storytelling is far from the only problem here. Put bluntly, Goldman never gets a bead on the main character, who is depicted through interesting events rather than properly revelatory scenes. Nearly every major supporting character is defined more clearly than Tom Horn. And while it’s easy to imagine Redford imbuing the character’s ambiguities with more nuance than Carradine can muster, the protagonist is very close to being a cipher. That’s a monumental problem for a three-hour character study.
          It doesn’t help that Jack Starrett’s direction is routine at best, or that the supporting cast comprises second-rate players. Richard Widmark contributes the movie’s best work as Horn’s crusty/funny mentor, though one can only dream of what, say, Jimmy Stewart could have done with the role. As for leading lady Karen Black, saying she’s forgettable requires acknowledging that her role is hopelessly muddled—the picture’s love story simply doesn’t work. However, none of these remarks should create the impression that Mr. Horn is an abject failure. More accurately, it’s like the rough draft of something better. The bones of a classic yarn are visible, but the Geronimo portion feels aimless, and the rancher portion, which has more clarity but suffers from bad jumps in continuity and logic, feels like a completely separate movie. Nonetheless, patient viewers will discover small rewards in Mr. Horn, such as the protagonist’s remark about why bogus aspects of his reputation are useful: “The more they think I’ve done,” he says, “the less I have to do.”

Mr. Horn: FUNKY

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