Film: Very Good
Transfer: Very Fine
Label: Twilight Time
Released: January 17, 2017
Genre: Drama / Western
Synopsis: Ella’s determined refusal to sell her land to a cold & brutal cattle baron is bolstered by a WWII vet who stays on and becomes a partner in business, and her fight.
Special Features: Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.
When producer Alan J. Pakula (To Kill a Mockingbird) turned director in 1969, he proved to be among the 1970s most interesting filmmakers, in the sense of applying a low-key style, pacing that sometimes slowed down to hang on certain moods or subdued behaviour, and the use of eerie, minimalist scores – many penned by Michael Small – that collectively helped define the decade’s regaled films which often featured grim finales, non-finales, and seemed atypical for studio product of any other decade.
Pakula’s golden period included Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974), All the President’s Men (1976), and later Sophie’s Choice (1982) and Presumed Innocent (1990) – tales dealing with characters overburdened by paranoia, nightmarish pasts, or agitators in a quest to expose horror by meticulously examining bad behaviour.
Comes a Horseman may be regarded as a revisionist western – its setting near the end of WWII offers an interesting series of culture clashes between returning war veterans, civilians, traditionalist cow herders, and the emerging postwar economy that would boom with oil and mineral mining in formally pristine environments – but it’s also a typical Pakula tale where pacing is subject to painting a portrait of anguished characters, hence its virtual 2 hour running time.
A script by former costume designer (A Man Called Horse) and production designer (Man in the Wilderness, and the soggy CanCon classique The Neptune Factor) Dennis Lynton Clark, Horseman benefits from minimal dialogue and small scenes that often fixate on character insecurities before a sudden jump, sometimes literally cutting to a chase as herder Ella (Jane Fonda) and new partner Frank (James Caan) track down missing cattle, and later deal with a midnight stampede, rescuing a valuable herd that’ll save Ella’s sad farm, and enable her to survive another year.
The Arizona locations photographed by ‘Prince of Darkness’ Gordon Willis (The Godfather, Interiors, Bright Lights, Big City) are exquisite – lots of sloping hills, cresting mountains, and snaking valleys – and it’s easy to understand why Ella won’t leave, nor sell to neighbouring land owner and bigwig J.W. Ewing (snarling, smarmy Jason Robards), nor the town banker (George Grizzard) who has enough of a lean on both property owners to force closure (or in Ewing’s case, test drill for oil and mineral reserves).
Ewing is determined to take Ella’s land at any cost, but their only point of agreement is the love of the land and sharing zero desire to transform their historic slices of Americana into an epic industrial zone. Even in mono, the soundtrack booms when 5-6 explosions send dirt and rocks into the air, ‘testing’ the serene land for its industrial value.
Where postwar progress is brutally destructive to the landscape and tranquility of the valley, herding is life: it energizes cattle and riders with arduous physical work that’s far less damaging to the environment. Ella and aging foreman Dodger (Richard Farnsworth) initially don’t trust WWII vet Frank, but when he doesn’t let the team down during an especially tough round-up, he’s earned their unwavering respect.
The romance that inevitably develops is logically slow, and low key – their sexual union happens in a scene we’re forced to imagine rather than see after another editorial jump – and Fonda’s exceptional as the tough herder & farmer who takes zero bullshit from anyone. It’s a measured, beautiful upward slope as we watch Ella morph back from a simple, solitary life to one of slight inclusion, and one can argue because Pakula has fixated on so many small moments – their first dinner is hysterical – the quick ending doesn’t come off as abrupt.
Horseman isn’t the most outstanding work of any single participant, but it’s a small gem that demands patience. Packed into the cast are small roles for Jim Davis, soon to become the patriarch of the (unrelated) Ewing family in the hit TV series Dallas (1978-1981); Mark Harmon, in what’s often cited as his film debut; and character actor James Keach. Stuntman and bit player Farnsworth earned as Oscar nomination for his fine supporting role of an aging cowhand (his fate is painfully poetic), and Robards manages to turn a familiar archetype into a desperate and ultimately dishonorable soldier who takes a sacred, dying code of respecting God’s green country to the extreme.
Gordon Jenkins’ production design is amazing – farms, graves, and valley encampments and shacks are impeccably dressed (or dressed-down) to suit the Spartan world of these characters – and editor Marion Rothman (Christine, Starman, Memoirs of an Invisible Man) maintains a subliminal momentum in quiet scenes, but punches up action in the exciting cattle herding sequences.
Sony’s HD transfer is sharp, but there are some visible wear marks at the reel changes, and a few shots have a slight jitter that seems to stem from in-camera issues or a hastier transfer on Sony’s end. Twilight chose to post a defense of the print source & transfer to assuage fans and collectors accustomed to pristine 2K and 4K transfers:
While Twilight Time believes Comes a Horseman to be a fine, and generally overlooked hidden treasure from the 1970s, and worthy of a second look by Blu-ray aficionados, we recognize it has not survived in the greatest of shape. We hope that those of you who care enough to buy a copy will forgive the unusually high (for a TT release) level of “speckling” (minus density) and general debris that mar the work of master cinematographer, Gordon Willis, in this hi-def presentation. We have rejected many other titles and transfers for similar reasons, but after some consideration decided this film was too important to let go.
In light of this fact, we are offering it at a reduced price ($22.95 SRP) to encourage those on the fence about it. TT strives always to strike a balance between a duty to preserve the legacy of film history, as well as presenting the very best version of a film in hi-def as possible under the circumstances.
A full restoration seems unlikely for this small Pakula work, which is a shame given the film was also released as a 70mm blow-up with Surround Sound. That said, there’s no DNR to neuter Willis’ use of high speed film for many of the film’s gorgeous, naturally lit scenes, and the colours are very warm, often making some dusk shots resemble rustic oil paintings.
Small’s modest but full-blooded score is showcased in a separate stereo track, allowing one to better appreciate the nuances of his approach: exciting, John Williamsesque music for the herding scenes; warm harmonics for tender moments between Ella and Frank; and weird discord whenever Ewing materializes, or his presence has discretely stained Ella’s homestead. (If memory serves correct, the 1997 MGM/UA laserdisc featured a quiet, mono isolated music track.)
Julie Kirgo’s essay is a worthy tribute to a misunderstood and marginalized film – I was bored to death the first time I watched it, and have since come around 160 degrees – and features some sharp takes on the fine actors who meld into their roles and the physical locations that undoubtedly inspired their performances.
Richard Farnsworth’s career was significantly changed by Horseman, transforming the 58 year old stuntman into a beloved character actor who once in a while got to shine again in a significant supporting or starring role. Among his finest work are the CanCon classic The Grey Fox (1982), and his final film, David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999), for which he earned another Oscar nomination.
Dennis Lynton Clark’s two other scripts were for TV: The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson (1990) and In Pursuit of Honor (1995).
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review