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COMES A HORSEMAN (director: Alan J. Pakula; screenwriter: Dennis Lynton Clark; cinematographer: Gordon Willis; editor: Marion Rothman; music: Michael Small; cast: James Caan (Frank ‘Buck’ Athearn), Jane Fonda (Ella Connors), Jason Robards (Jacob ‘J.W.’ Ewing), George Grizzard (Neil Atkinson), Richard Farnsworth (Dodger), Jim Davis (Julie Blocker); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Gene Kirkwood/Dan Paulson; United Artists; 1978)
“Desperately tries to become monumental in the manner of a John Ford metaphorical Western.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The movie with a misleading title (should be Comes Three Horsemen) seems bored with itself for most of the film. It desperately tries to become monumental in the manner of a John Ford metaphorical Western. But fails in that attempt. Aside from its homage to the Old West and its stunning showy landscape photography by cinematographer Gordon Willis, it’s pretentious, slow-moving and flatly told despite its A-film production values. Alan J. Pakula directs as if he’s still doing his 1974 agoraphobic political thriller The Parallax View. The offbeat script handed in by Dennis Lynton Clark never captures the big thing it seemed to be looking for to make it ring out as a modern classic.

It’s about the struggles of 3 cattle ranchers, Ella Connors (Jane Fonda), Jacob Ewing (Jason Robards) and Frank ‘Buck’ Athearn (James Caan), in Montana (some filming was done in Northern Arizona) during the closing days of WWII. The gritty Ella Connors inherited the land from her father and tries hard to keep it going, dreaming of the more innocent good old days of her childhood when the west more readily bought into the myth of individuality. The elderly Jacob Ewing, Ella’s cousin, owns a big ranch that borders hers. Ella at one time slept with him, but now regrets that immature decision. The greedy Ewing envisions himself as the local cattle baron who is above the law (dreaming he could be a real cattle baron like his grandpa) and wants to take over her ranch as a start to his empire building. Old-timer Dodger (Richard Farnsworth, in film debut) is Ewing’s ranch hand and is a cowboy grounded close to the land and the ways of the past, who is sympathetic to the lady’s fight not to give in to the bullying cattle baron. Frank falls in love with the beauty and openness of the Montana valley area and with Ella, and decides to stay here after he returns from his wartime army duty hoping to find a peaceful respite from the war. He buys some land from Ella to start his own ranch, which helps her make her mortgage payments so she doesn’t foreclose as Ewing gleefully anticipates. But another problem soon arises, as the big oil companies pressure both of them for drilling rights to their land. Rich oil man Atkinson (George Grizzard) offers Cheney-like logic for the ranchers to cede the land to the environmental killers.

The film only comes to life when Ewing hires a hit man to eliminate Frank. Which proves that murder is a better plot point for a Western than a battle over a mortgage. It also throws in set pieces such as a stampede and a bar fight, as if trying to convince us or itself that its heart was really into making a Western.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”