Comes A Horseman came out in a period when cinema was subject to a lot of change. The new tranche of directors, under the banner of the new Hollywood movement, now ruled the box office and there was a creative slant towards more personal stories including those that looked to the past. In this case Alan J. Pakula, director of All The President’s Men, told a story that took in major elements of the old west and sat them in the time of the second world war.
It is the mid 1940’s. America is at war with the Axis powers but in the rural states life goes on, much of which ultimately supports the war effort. Two things that are always needed during a time of conflict are food and power. Here they are in abundance with cattle on the plains and oil under the ground. Most of the valley is owned by the land baron J.W. Ewing (Jason Robards) with only hold outs Ella (Jane Fonda) and newcomer Frank (James Caan). Having tried and was unable to persuade Ella with a partnership Ewing resorts to more direct methods. The result of this is that Ella and Buck form an uneasy partnership which begins to work for them. Of course, this then leads to conflict and confrontation.
The opening ten minutes of the film are a masterclass in visual storytelling. Without realising it we are introduced to all the major characters, get their character dynamics in order, hints at the story that will unfold, juxtaposes the old and new west and presents the stakes for the film. Firstly we get introduced to Frank and his partner who we are just starting up on their land. As they move their cattle they pass a funeral for the son of Ewing. This informs of Frank’s past in the Army, the loss that Ewing feels and the changing of the times. Also at the funeral is Ella the local banker and an oil tycoon. We get an idea of the dynamic between all of them and with no spoken dialogue we pretty much know their past and an idea of what the future holds. Then we get a shot of the valley and what is at stake.
This a film that benefits from two actors at the top of their game. Both Fonda and Caan are accomplished actors and strong screen presences in their own right. Here, both tone down their performances to fit in with the characters rather than trying to outshine each other. Ella is a bit of a lost soul at the start of the film. She was raised by a father that wanted a son and his teachings have left her tough on the outside but with doubt about her own abilities and a certain amount of uncertainty on the inside. Her eyes speak volumes about how she is handling things. Frank is the same in that the war has left its mark on him. He is quiet and reserved but can see the benefit of teaming up with Ella and what it will mean to him.
The gentle pace may put some people off but this is a deliberate move on the part of the film makers. There has to be a bit of time taken on developing the characters and allowing the sub plots to progress. It is consistent with the slower pace of life that the characters have. Ewing’s character in particular needed some time to explain what his motivation and principals are. He could easily have been painted as the bad guy but we get to understand what he all about. It isn’t money that drives him. If it was then he would’t have been at odds with the oil company who is in danger of take over his land in a similar way as he is doing with Ella. In a way he is seen as being just as old fashioned as them. The description of the last of the old school land barons that one person uses is not to be taken as a sign of admiration.
Comes A Horseman is an absorbing film that rewards your patience with the pace of the movie. It has just come out in a new BFI Blu-Ray release that adds new extra features, an interview with the director from 1986 and a feature length commentary commissioned for this release. It is worth seeking out.