BOOTLEG FILES 445: “The Grey Fox” (1983 Canadian Western starring Richard Farnsworth).
LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public exhibition of this film.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It was on VHS video in the 1980s.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film was never released on DVD or Blu-ray.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: I hope so!
I’d like to send a message to the folks who run The Criterion Collection, Kino Lorber, Olive Films and any other DVD/Blu-ray label that specializes in resurrecting old-time goodies: can you please make an effort to bring back the 1983 film “The Grey Fox”? This production is one of the finest films of the 1980s and one of the greatest films made in Canada – and its disappearance from home entertainment channels is nothing short of a monumental shame.
“The Grey Fox” is based on the life and crimes of Bill Miner (1847-1913), an American stagecoach robber who earned a spot in Canadian history for masterminding that country’s first-ever train robbery. Miner was also celebrated for his uncommon good manners, and some sources credit him originating the phrase “Hands up!” It was somewhat surprising that it took so long for Miner’s adventures to be adapted into a movie, and it was even more unusual that the project would be helmed by Phillip Borsos, an Australian-born Canadian filmmaker who focused exclusively on short documentaries – most notably the 1979 Oscar-nominated “Nails,” which explained how nails are manufactured.
From a commercial standpoint, Borsos took a major chance in giving the role of Bill Miner to Richard Farnsworth, an American stuntman-turned-actor. Farnsworth was mostly cast in uncredited bit parts before he achieved a breakthrough with a supporting role in the 1978 Jane Fonda-James Caan Western “Comes a Horseman.” The film was a box office flop, but Farnsworth’s low-keyed performance snagged an unexpected Oscar nomination. However, his career remained stuck with supporting roles in barely-seen films – “Tom Horn,” “Resurrection,” the notorious debacle “The Legend of the Lone Ranger” and the Dirk Benedict-Linda Blair stinker “Ruckus” – before Borsos handed him his first starring role.
“The Grey Fox” opens in the early years of the 20th century, with Farnsworth’s Bill Miner being released from prison after serving 30 years from robbing stagecoaches. In the world that he re-enters, stagecoaches have disappeared and the once-wild frontier has been effectively tamed. Miner travels to British Columbia and lodges with his sister and brother-in-law, but the latter takes an immediate disliking to him and the work that is arranged for Miner – harvesting oysters from muddy shorelines – is not the late-year career he envisioned for himself.
One evening, Miner finds himself in a small theater offering something that he never saw before: a motion picture. And, as luck would have it, the film on the big screen is “The Great Train Robbery.” Suddenly, an idea is born – if stagecoaches are scarce, why not follow the lead of the movie miscreants and rob a train?
Relocating to a small British Columbian town and assuming a new identity, Miner teams with a somewhat dimwitted young man known as Shorty (Wayne Robson) and hatches his train robbery scheme. They don’t initially get the hang of it, but they quickly learn from their mistakes. Miner also catches the fancy of the town’s resident feminist, the self-employed photographer and conveniently unmarried Kate Flynn (Jackie Burroughs). Miner and Kate bring out the best in each other, and they share a mutual fascination that blossoms into romance.
Unfortunately, news of the train robberies reaches a humorless Pinkerton detective (Gary Reineke), who surmises that the modus operandi used in the heists was similar to the manner in which Miner conducted stagecoach robberies decades earlier. While the town’s local sheriff is unwilling to pursue the detective’s hunch, Miner realizes that his luck may not be able to run indefinitely.
The core strength of the “The Grey Fox” is the extraordinary presence of Farnsworth. His presence is gentle and reassuring, yet he sparkles with a wonderfully mischievous undercurrent. In the film’s most hilarious moment, Farnsworth looks admiringly at a horse that is tied to a stake. At first, it appears that Farnsworth is merely gazing with approval at the beauty and strength of the animal. But, slowly, his smile begins to widen ever so slightly, and the viewer can almost hear the gears turning in his mind. In the next shot, Farnsworth is riding the horse like a whirlwind across a vast plain while the camera follows him in an epic tracking shot.
Vincent Canby, reviewing the film for The New York Times, summed up the star’s appeal (perhaps in a too-deep purple hue): “Mr. Farnsworth has the sort of face the camera adores. It finds in his sharp, pale blue eyes, in the age lines and in the texture of skin weathered, apparently, by decades in the open air all kinds of emotions, which may be acting or which may simply be the richness of the features given to him by nature.”
Farnsworth also enjoyed strong support by Robson as the good-natured (if somewhat unintelligent) sidekick and Burroughs as the free-spirited would-be suffragette who happily falls under the spell of Miner’s unusual charm. Frank Tidy’s cinematography and Bill Brodie’s art direction effectively captured both the charms and hardships of that distant era, and the film is wrapped in Michael Conway Baker’s inventive score that includes selections of Celtic music performed by The Chieftains. The Celtic flavoring of the score may seem incongruous to the film’s setting, but it strangely mirrors the roguish charm of the characters and their misadventures.
“The Grey Fox” opened in Canada in late 1982 and scored 13 Genie Award nominations, winning seven prizes including Best Picture, Director, Foreign Actor for Farnsworth and Supporting Actress for Burroughs. United Artists Classics picked up the film for U.S. theatrical release in 1983, and “The Grey Fox” received Golden Globe nominations for Farnsworth’s performance and for Best Foreign Film (even though it is an English-language production, the Golden Globes included all non-U.S. endeavors in that category).
Unfortunately, “The Grey Fox” proved to be something of a peak for its main talent. Borsos directed a few more films, most notably “The Mean Season” (1985) starring Kurt Russell and “Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog” (1995) before succumbing to leukemia in 1995 at the age of 41. Farnsworth returned to supporting roles – most notably in “The Natural” (1984) and the Canadian TV miniseries “Anne of Green Gables” (1985) – before getting his second role-of-a-lifetime in David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” (1999), which earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination. In 2000, suffering from terminal bone cancer, he took his own life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Burroughs’ work would be mostly confined to television before her death from cancer in 2010.
So what happened to “The Grey Fox”? There was a VHS video release in the 1980s and it has turned up on television over the years, but it never appeared on DVD or Blu-ray. You can’t even find the full film on YouTube – which is odd, considering what is posted there! A few gray market video websites offer DVDs that were duped from the VHS release.
I am not certain why “The Grey Fox” has vanished – I suspect that there might be a problem with the music rights involving The Chieftains. (The soundtrack album was never issued on a U.S. label, and I believe this is the only Chieftains-related recording that was never officially released in the U.S.)
While it remains an elusive commodity, the film’s appeal has not faded. “The Grey Fox” holds the distinction of being one of the relatively few films to earn a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Considering its pedigree and level of support, its re-release is long overdue. Thus, I will ask again: will somebody please – pretty please, with sugar on top – get “The Grey Fox” back into home entertainment channels?
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!