When I lived in Wales in the mid-2000s, I would have to take a nine-hour bus and ferry journey back home to see the family. And you couldn’t relax on it. Nine hours with nothing to do but look out the window, at some beautiful scenery to be sure, and make sure no one bothered you. Nine hours. It felt a great deal longer, and it was only at the end when anything would happen.
That’s pretty much my review for Come a Horseman (1978), now on Blu-ray from the BFI.
Directed by Alan J. Pakula, Come a Horseman tells the story of ranchers at the opposite ends of the Western social spectrum. Set in Montana towards the end of the Second World War, hardworking ranch owner Ella Connors (Jane Fonda) buries her husband and fends off the unwanted advances of land baron J.W Ewing (Jason Robards). Into this mix comes Athearn (James Caan), a wounded war vet turned rancher whose partner is gunned downed by one of Ewing’s men. As Athearn and Connors enter into an uneasy alliance to survive the harsh land, Ewing does everything he can to extend his control over the valley. As the banks and Oilmen try to edge into the territory, Ewing goes to greater lengths to take over the basin and Connors.
This is a strange one, coming after Pakula’s Political Paranoia trilogy. In some ways, it’s an extension of it. Connors and Athearn are muscled and intimidated by Ewing and his men at every turn. Ewing has the local law in his pocket, and yet even he has problems going up against the Oilmen that can backdate and drive him off his ranch. Trapped by the plots of mysterious political and business forces that abuse the lowly for their gain. But it gets buried under a pile of Western melodrama that spends more time focusing on ranching and landscape than it does on intrigue and suspense.
It’s not that Come a Horseman is a bad movie. It just isn’t an entertaining one. Most of it is spent watching Fonda and Caan lasso bulls while waiting for the next set-piece. While that may be hyperbolic on my part, it does feel that way. It is a slow-paced film that doesn’t so much stroll as drags itself across the screen. That’s the main problem with it. It lasts too long. Pakula could have easily cut out 20 minutes of Horsman and we wouldn’t have lost anything but would gain something instead. The onscreen action would not feel like moments of temporary filler and would have resulted in a tighter, more tense and ominous film. The sudden rush of the climax suits a movie like that rather than the one we have.
That said, the film has some good qualities. Fonda, Caan, and Robards have a natural, subtle, onscreen chemistry. Given the length of the film, it’s allowed to build organically, removing rushed, interpersonal, character development. The shortage of spoken exposition is countered by body language and nuance of delivery that tells us all we need to know about the character’s relationships. Ewing is a more complex antagonist than those in other Westerns. His goal in owning the valley is not just one of power but one of conservation, to prevent the Oilmen from taking over, and to protect the land itself. In his mind, he’s not the landowner but the custodian.
The cinematography is more akin to a landscape film than a Western. While Westerns often rely on the big open spaces, Horseman’s DoP Gordon Willis and Pakula take it that little bit further. Extreme open shots with the cast becoming lost on screen heighten the idea that the land itself is a character of the story. The backed up with Ewing’s pursuit of the land mirroring his pursuit of Connors. In the end, the characters exist for the length of their story while the earth will outlast them all.
The disc comes with new audio commentary by novelist and scriptwriter Scott Harrison, an illustrated booklet from the BFI, and a recording of a Guardian interview with Pakula and Quentin Falk back in 1986. But the stand out is Jane Fonda in Conversation, recorded late last year at the BFI Southbank. Hosted by Samira Ahmed, it explores Fonda as both a Hollywood and political icon, and I would recommend buying the disc just for this to anyone interested in the history of Hollywood.
Come a Horseman is a pretty, well-acted if a somewhat long and tedious film.
Dir: Alan J. Pakula
Src: Dennis Lynton Clark
Cast: Jane Fonda, James Caan, Jason Robards
Prd: Gene Kirkwood, Dan Paulson
DOP: Gordon Willis
Music: Michael Small
Runtime: 119 minutes
Comes a Horseman is available on Blu-ray now