This genuinely offbeat modern Western is one of the most beautiful movies of its era, comparable in its more modest way to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven but without the studied fussiness. Dennis Lynton Clark’s spare, incisive screenplay, concerning a woman rancher’s struggle against the elements and the wealthy cattle baron determined to wrest control of her land, was, like picture itself, traduced by critics of the time, who characterized it as “lethargic” and “boring” (or, in Leonard Maltin’s view, “low-key to the point of catatonia”) when the movie is actually refreshingly unfettered by cliché. Set during the waning years of the Second World War, Comes a Horseman pits Jane Fonda against a quietly rapacious Jason Robards, Jr., with two flies in his ointment in the persons of the former soldier played by James Caan, teaming up with Fonda after he’s nearly murdered by one of Robards’ goons, and George Grizzard as an oil executive whose plans threaten to gum up those of the avaricious old rancher. Perhaps, to be charitable, the picture’s contemporary critics expected a standard Western and were flummoxed when confronted by a multiple character study, of Fonda’s hostile cattlewoman, Caan’s easygoing but unshakable cowboy, the old veteran ranch-hand played with staggeringly effective simplicity by the former stuntman Richard Farnsworth, and Robards’ acquisitive and utterly deadly oligarch.
With a filmmaker like Pakula, however, contemporary reviewers surely should have been more attuned to his pacing, and the concerns he addressed in his movies. He’d directed three so-called “paranoia thrillers” in an almost unbroken row (the despairing Klute featuring Fonda’s best performance, the under-performing but extremely observant The Parallax View and the beautifully conceived and wonderfully executed All the President’s Men) and none of them was shy about indicating that those with power and money in America were agents of chaos, determined to undermine the public weal at every turn. Robards’ rancher may not be as powerful as what I think of as the permanent U.S. government, or the corporations that own it, but in his corner of the West he’s assured of his ability to take what he wants, and from whomever he wishes to rob, without fear.
Although the song itself is not heard in the picture, Clark took as his title a line in the refrain of the 1972 Gordon Lightfoot ballad “Don Quixote”:
Through the woodland, through the valley
Comes a horseman wild and free
Tilting at the windmills passing
Who can the brave young horseman be?*
His screenplay was originally called Comes a Horseman, Wild and Free which I think you will agree is taking poetic allusion a shade too far. Do not, however, assume from this that the movie slathers its metaphors on with a trowel; Pakula was too good a filmmaker for that. But the Quixote reference isn’t far off; Ella Connors, Jane Fonda’s character, is of necessity tilting at windmills. Attempting to do as what was seldom done by a woman, let alone one solitary save for an ageing trail hand and a cowboy of unknown quantity, Ella is fighting, not for the imaginary chivalric honor of a deluded would-be knight-errant but for survival: If she fails in her quest, she loses everything she ever had. She’s not exactly a damsel in distress but she needs all the help she can get.
The picture isn’t lethargic so much as evenly-paced, and whatever the critics said in 1978, it’s never dull. (I am constantly astounded that people who routinely praised Kubrick and Tarkovsky ever had the cheek to call anyone else’s work “boring.”) I recognize that others are less patient than I with leisurely narratives that take their time enlarging the contours of their characters, but as long as the people behind the picture seem intelligent, and treat me with respect, I’m usually willing to go with them, at least for the first hour. Comes a Horseman is not Red River, and doesn’t pretend to be. It’s more of a mood piece, as I think is evident from Gordon Willis’ quietly astonishing color cinematography. As with Philip Lathrop’s work on the equally photogenic Blake Edwards Western Wild Rovers (1971), Willis’ images aren’t there merely to serve as pretty moving postcards; in movies about people working the land to survive, the surrounding vistas are a part of their story, and their breathtaking quality here becomes part of the movie’s overall texture, as integral as the cattle and the plains they graze on. Like John Ford in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Willis captures some beautiful images containing prairie lightning and the threat of violent rain. The lightning itself has nothing to do with the plot or action of the movie, but gives the sequences a texture and a verisimilitude they wouldn’t otherwise have had.
If Clark’s script is a bit elliptical and if we aren’t sure at first what to make of his characters, that is not necessarily a defect; in an age whose popular entertainments have no room for shades of meaning and do not admit of characters who are not utterly defined the moment we lay eyes on them, such a novelistic approach now seems a revelation. Imagine a screenwriter in the 21st century letting us wonder for several reels why the Jane Fonda character is so angry, and so resentful; he or she would be handed a copy of Sid Field’s Screenplay and told to return when the script conformed to its “rules.” Clark’s dialogue doesn’t waste words, or action: After the Farnsworth character is wounded and admits to Fonda he knows his trail-riding days are over, we see him painfully climbing onto the back of his horse with the aid of a wooden chair; the next time we see him he’s dead on the prairie. Like a non-sapient animal, he’s gone off to die, and in the sort of campfire setting in which he feels most comfortable. Clark also occasionally slips in a pungent metaphor, as when Caan’s Frank says to Ella (and not without some admiration), “Lady, you got balls the size of grapefruits.” And when she reads a book at the dinner table, he goes into her parlor and picks up a volume himself. “Shakespeare,” he grins, and you know he knows exactly how much he’s bitten off that he’ll never be able to chew. If that isn’t good observational writing, it’s surely the next best thing.
Willis’ photography is mouth-wateringly rich, and its verdancy is partly the result of the weather on location (the picture was filmed in Colorado and the Coconino National Forest area of Arizona) which vexed Pakula but may have delighted his lighting cameraman. And Michael Small, who had provided tense and highly individualized minimalist scores for Pakula in Klute and The Parallax View (and would contribute a third, for the John Schlesinger-directed Marathon Man in 1976) eschews the unnerving electronica here, opting for a full symphonic treatment that is as expansive as the images. And while Small occasionally apes both Copland and Elmer Bernstein (as well as seeming in one cue to make reference to the Jerry Goldsmith/Ernie Shelton song from the Edwards movie; perhaps he thought it was a folk song?) in the main his music is fulsome and varied, anchored to a wistful main guitar theme for Fonda’s Ella and containing a gentle, heartbreaking elegy for Farnsworth’s Dodger.
Farnsworth’s performance may remind you of one by another stuntman. Like Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show, Farnsworth knows the value of silence, and of speaking softly when words are required. He’s so honest and likable a presence in Comes a Horseman you feel as if you’ve been watching him act for years. Speaking of silence: Jason Robards does no thundering or emoting here, and his lack of demonstration makes his character all the more fearsome. He’s a snake on a rock, always watching, occasionally flicking out his tongue to test the air, seemingly relaxed but poised to strike when it’s least expected. We know he’s dangerous from the beginning but we only discover the vicious sadism of which he’s capable when Ella tells Frank about her past. People for Jacob “J.W.” Ewing are necessary evils, or impediments to be gotten rid of, as Grizzard’s oil man is too self-satisfied with what he perceives as his own unlimited power to comprehend. Robards and Fonda have an interesting arc as movie co-stars: Before Comes a Horseman she was his mistress in the sex comedy Any Wednesday in 1966; eleven years later, he was a romanticized Dashiell Hammett to her improbable but rewarding Lillian Hellman in Julia. After his J.W. Ewing tries to burn her Ella Connors to death here, there may not have been anywhere left for these actors to go together. (Although wouldn’t you have loved to have seen them both in a production of Anna Christie?)
Since it causes some confusion on an initial viewing, I wish Caan’s character didn’t go by both the name Frank and the nickname “Buck” but I have no complaints about his performance. The script plays to his strengths as an actor — to his cool sexuality, his largely unemphatic masculine grace and the humor that is expressed by a glint in the eye and a sly smile at his own wit when one of his characters get off an especially good line. (He studied with Sanford Meisner.) At his considerable best Caan has what so many see in Steve McQueen and which I can’t, and he isn’t afraid of expressing himself in dialogue the way McQueen, who routinely asked for fewer lines, apparently was. Fonda, who prepared for her role with ranch-work, appears tan and slightly weathered and the look suits Ella Connors. Here it’s the actress rather than her leading man who doesn’t speak much. You can’t quite imagine why she’s so surly, so suspicious of strangers and so resentful of any attempt by Frank to help her, and when you discover the reasons you can’t help admiring her relative restraint. It’s a largely interior performance by an actress who tends to express herself best in dialogue, and a damned impressive one.
It’s interesting to note that Robards’ character is called J.W. Ewing, and that his chief henchman here is played by the instantly recognizable cowboy actor Jim Davis, who after filming his role in Comes a Horseman was cast as the father of Larry Hagman’s “J. R. Ewing” in the evening soap opera Dallas. There doesn’t seem to be any possible connection between the two projects, so this appears to be one of those mysteries of coincidence that occasionally present themselves on the periphery of The Show Biz.
*Lyrics ©1972 by Gordon Lightfoot.
Text copyright 2021 by Scott Ross