Comes a Horseman (1978)
One could almost subtitle this film The Ballad of the Three J’s.
Jane Fonda, James Caan and Mr. Jason Robards.
It’s a tale of greed mixed with a pure hatred between our leading characters in a western setting during the second world war.
With a Shane like atmosphere we find Jane Fonda trying to make a go of a dying ranch left to her by her late Father. She has one hand working for her played by veteran Richard Farnsworth.
Robards is the land baron who has squeezed out the small timers and who has a past with Jane. He’s just buried his son over the opening scene. A casualty of the war. He’s a man with a dying vision.
James Caan has a small piece of land and a few cattle that he purchased from Jane as she had needed the cash to keep the bankers from foreclosing.
When neither Fonda nor Caan are willing to sell, violence enters the plot. Caan and his partner Mark Harmon are shot and left for dead on the open frontier. Along comes Farnsworth who finds Caan still alive and brings him back to Fonda’s ranch. With Caan’s health coming around and his know how around a ranch coupled with his screen intensity one can’t help but have visions of Alan Ladd as Shane taking down Jack Palance flood the memory banks.
Though the film doesn’t quite go in that direction it does set up Caan to both aid and join forces with Fonda in their battle to stay afloat and manage their own lands and livestock.
When George Grizzard enters the fray it is he who holds the key to the riches beneath the lands in the form of oil. None of the trio of ranchers are interested but it is he who yields the real power and not Robards. With his grasp on the land slipping, Robards will go over the edge.
Director Alan J. Pakula had already worked with both Robards and Fonda previously. It’s notable that both won Oscars under his direction. Fonda in Klute and Robards in All The President’s Men. Jane portrays a strong frontier woman here at a time when women of the nation were being called upon to do a man’s work with so many off to war. Caan himself in the film is a returning war hero. The fact that their relationship is a slow moving train filled with both respect and mutual admiration works to both the actors and the film’s benefit.
The language in the script is sparse. Seldom does a character say anything in idle conversation or off the “cuff.” This adds to the meaning of the spoken words and the strength of each character within.
Focusing on Jason Robards in this film is a rather easy thing to do when he commands the screen with an evil presence as his thought process plays out for the viewer and his land baron character descends into a violent madness.
There are two other strong things in this film that Robards must compete with. One is the landscape and scenery of Arizona caught on film in this “modern” day western taking place in the 1940’s. The other is the first fully fleshed out role for long time cowboy and stunt man Richard Farnsworth. Farnsworth deservedly receive an Oscar nomination for his wonderful role as the aging cowboy full of wisdom and wonderful lines. In commenting on his campfire guitar to Caan he points out, “I’ve had this thing in hawk so much the pawn broker plays it better than I do.”
There’s also a rousing score in here from Michael Small that mixes wonderfully with the outdoors caught on film.
On the trivia side former stuntman turned character actor Farnsworth had worked on films with Jane’s Father Henry as far back as Fort Apache and The Tin Star. He’s also listed as an uncredited stuntman on Jane’s 1965 western Cat Ballou. Richard would also go on to play the kindly sheriff in Caan’s box office smash Misery where he had to tangle with the unstable Kathy Bates.
Jason Robards was perhaps never more of a “name” valued on the marque at the time of this films release. Like Spencer Tracy before him he was coming off two consecutive acting Oscars though in the best supporting actor category. The aforementioned All The President’s Men and Julia which also cast him opposite Jane Fonda.
Comes a Horsemen is worth a look and for my first viewing I came away pleased with the overall impact of the film though I would have preferred a little more meat on the eventual clash of characters.