Arguably the best film to emerge from the mini-boom of rodeo movies in the early ’70s, this small-scale drama hits a number of interesting notes at once. In addition to servicing the public’s fleeting appetite for stories about men who prove their bravery by riding monstrous bulls, the picture also speaks to very ’70s themes related to the Native American experience and the travails of small men trapped by self-destructive life choices. Adapted from a novel by Hal Borland, When the Legends Die tracks the sad adventures of Tom Black Bull (Frederic Forrest), an 18-year-old Yute Indian who lives among whites but lacks a strong sense of social belonging. This emotional state makes Tom susceptible to the machinations of Red (Richard Widmark), a drunken rancher who sees a financial opportunity in Tom’s skill with animals.
After snookering Tom with a line about fame and fortune, Red convinces the young man to become a bull rider, and then pushes even harder after Tom survives a harrowing ride that results in the death of a bull. Red dubs his young charge “Killer” Tom Black, exploiting demeaning stereotypes and thereby shaking Tom’s already wobbly self-image. Dazzled by money, notoriety, and women, the impressionable Tom plays into his role, intentionally pushing more bulls to their deaths until his conscience starts to nag at him. This, naturally, creates a rift between Tom and his unscrupulous mentor, and the film comes into its own by depicting the ways in which Tom and Red are changed by the distance that grows between them.
Even though When the Legends Die traffics in clichés to some extent—always a risk when trying to lend fresh nuances to archetypal stories—the restraint of the filmmaking and the sensitivity of the acting make the piece believably mournful. Screenwriter Robert Dozier employs admirable economy, and director Stuart Miller stays out of the material’s way, presenting action and performance in an unvarnished fashion. Widmark, whose latter-day work tended toward woodenness, does some of his finest acting here, dramatizing the pathetic lifestyle of a loser who hitches a ride on a winner. Furthermore, Widmark’s natural stoicism suits the character, defining the macho precipice from which Red will inevitably fall. Forrest, whose erratic career has included everything from enthusiastic overacting to somnambulistic underacting, hits a great pocket, as well. The naturally melancholy set of Forrest’s features, accentuated with lighting and makeup to make him appear more Native American, gives a strong sense of vulnerability—seeing Red toy with Tom’s emotions is like watching someone kick a puppy.
Ultimately, the most distinctive aspect of When the Legends Die may be the one that separates it from many other rodeo flicks. Except for a few fleeting passages during which viewers are meant to share in Tom’s triumphs, the film generally makes rodeo life look cruel, exploitive, and seedy. Whereas films including Sam Peckinpah’s lovely Junior Bonner (also released in 1972) treat brono-busting as a metaphor representing the realization of male identity, When the Legends Die depicts the sport as a form of modern-day gladiatorial carnage. The obvious parallels to white America’s historical mistreatment of the frontier, and of the living things found there, are resonant but never overstated.
When the Legends Die: GROOVY