A Wuthering Heights West
When a filmmaker explores a new frontier, the challenges can be daunting. Director Alan J. Pakula, who had shown his mastery of the urban paranoia thriller with his powerful trilogy of Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976), wanted to try his hand at a Western, and just as he had done in bustling city streets and ominous metropolitan shadows, he sought in making Comes a Horseman (1978), which moviegoers first saw 49 years ago today, to make the open landscapes of the American West (in this case, the mountains areas around Westcliffe, Colorado, standing in for Montana) a compelling character, working closely with his collaborator on the above three movies, the versatile cinematographer Gordon Willis. “Indeed, he sounded enthusiastic during the shooting as he described the film as a ‘Dreiserian Western, [dealing] with very specific American myths’ and ‘an attempt to deal with a classic film genre to explore character, as was Klute,’” Jared Brown observes in his 2005 study Alan J. Pakula: His Films and His Life. “Speaking specifically about the plot,which pits two ranchers [Pakula’s Oscar®-winning Klute star Jane Fonda and James Caan], hanging on to their livelihoods by a thread, against a wealthy cattle baron [Pakula’s Oscar®-winning All the President’s Men star Jason Robards], he said he felt ‘a great attraction to people who fight against powerful odds for freedom and dignity, who live for values beyond the obvious material ones of today.’ He also discussed his wish ‘to explore a woman in the American West as a heroic character. In most Westerns, the woman is in a calico dress, running after the hero on the horse, saying, ‘Nothing is worth dying for,’ or she’s a gun-toting Calamity Jane. The idea of dealing with a heroine in the West, very much a woman yet willing to fight with the same passion as men, was a great attraction.’ He told Gordon Willis, ‘It’s a Wuthering Heights West in terms of visual feeling. These people are all haunted.”
The wide-open frontier was not too hospitable to Pakula, either. The director, Brown reports, “was assured by the Colorado Film Commission that the weather in the valley where the picture was shot was reliably dry, but noted later that ‘the weather kept changing. We’d have an hour-and-a-half of sunlight; we’d have an hour-and-a-half of thunderclouds; we’d have an hour of rain; we’d have another hour of sunlight. We had a kaleidoscope of God’s weather every day. For several days, we even had incredible hailstorms.’” This Horseman would not keep on schedule. But it would keep on point with its helmer’s abiding concept thanks to his knack for evoking spot-on performances from Fonda (a neophyte horsewoman who learned while making this movie, here matching the impact of her earlier 1978 performance in Coming Home), Caan (quite comfortable on horseback and quietly charismatic as an ex-soldier trying to avoid trouble but not dodging it when it matters), Robards and George Grizzard as unscrupulous fat cats who each have their own designs for the territory they covet, and stuntman-turned-actor Richard Farnsworth, whose moving and eloquent work as a veteran ranch hand earned him an Academy Award® nomination and the National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor. Dennis Lynton Clark’s screenplay did not sidestep Western movie conventions but managed to celebrate and deepen them with contemporary undertones of rapacious, moneyed interests wrestling with spirited underdogs over the fate of their little pieces of home turf on the planet. Another Pakula colleague from Klute and The Parallax View, composer Michael Small provided music of elegiac grandeur and simmering tension. 2017 has proven a rich year for the debut of “changing of the guard” Westerns on Blu-ray, with Warner Archives’ releases of Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country and The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The lesser-known but richly flavorful Comes a Horseman, the one “nonurban” title from its very “urban” director’s influential career, is also rooted in that hallowed tradition on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.