When Richard Farnsworth rightfully assumed the lead role in “The Straight Story”, it was the pinnacle and fitting end to a career that saw no decline. Any role he took as an actor was strengthened and deepened by his presence and wisdom that wasn’t only defined by the creases on his face. As John Coble in “Tom Horn”, he looks like he’s nearly from the same time that Horn existed in, a man who saw the West go from rancid bad to potential good. Owning some cattle himself and as a member of the Cattlemen’s Association in 1901 Wyoming, he just wants some protection for the land. He wants the cattle rustlers far away from land that needs nurturing, which needs to see the light of a different day. Hence, he calls upon Tom Horn, a legend whose career was spent helping the West open up to exploration of a more moralistic kind. Families could exist here. Good people too.
In Tom Horn, Steve McQueen found a symbolic role, evident from the opening shot where Horn is resting a bit near his horse as the sun goes down. McQueen knew his time was up soon and his work here shows him not only as Horn, but considering his own time as an actor, wandering empty lands, deciding that what was best was to take on a character whose own end came far too quickly as well, not in an honorable way either. Death isn’t always honorable and cancer is what got McQueen. Hanging is what got Horn. McQueen obviously got the better deal, but in Horn, he saw a brotherly spirit. In this West, he found an everlasting peace.
The early scenes of “Tom Horn” are so good and so well-filmed, that it’s tempting to think of it as a masterpiece Western right away. Amusingly, at an outside dinner being held by Coble and including many members of the Cattlemen’s Association, McQueen refers to a lobster as the biggest bug he’s ever seen and is unsure how to eat it. He’s definitely been on the Western trail for countless years, enough that he prefers the hills to civilization. Most likely, it’s in the hills that he finds peace. He also finds some human peace in Glendolene (Linda Evans), which isn’t a typical love story with montages of horseback riding almost bring out the urge to puke sugar. It is a relationship of sensibility and eventual breakup, but done in a most interesting manner. As Tom wiles away his final days in a jail cell for the murder of a 15 year old boy (in which he maintained his innocence all the way to his execution), we see flashbacks to this fleeting romance, which suit the story perfectly because Tom doesn’t have that much to do beyond looking outside to the hills.
Stylistically, director William Wiard didn’t know quite how to handle some parts of the story, even going so far as to include a special effect that’s far too grisly for the feeling of this film. Perhaps he saw it as a lead-in to Horn’s violent tendencies in the act of protection, but Horn’s shooting of another cattle rustler at night blasts out that rustler’s brains, but reveals the dummy a split-second before the shot which isn’t so bad, just in the way it was set up. A quick edit, and contact from bullet to head would have been much more seamless. There’s also a moment where Wiard superimposes Tom against a sunset sky which isn’t even close to the scene of his arrest, as if to place him as a God above the land. He was not above the land, but with it always. That was his territory, his home forever. His violence toward those who dared desecrate and steal from it was justified.
In its moments of beauty, “Tom Horn” becomes an entirely different Western, a time of settlement and no brawls outside bars or stagecoach chases or anything that defined even the best Westerns of the ‘30s, ‘40s and later. Simply, it was just wide open space. It was time to settle, expand, and get a country going. In Farnsworth, Evans, Slim Pickens, and others, this West is populated by talented faces, and where McQueen found a skilled performance enough to keep him immortal when his mortality ran out. There’s not only Thomas Crown, Frank Bullitt, Papillon, Eric Stoner, and Capt. Virgil Hilts. Tom Horn also glitters in the stars.