At a time when the rodeo movie was in vogue thanks to titles like Junior Bonner, The Honkers and JW Coop, this slow moving yet rewarding entry was released that saw Richard Widmark getting a role with some bite opposite a young Frederic Forrest shining in a low key performance. A performance that recalls the style and look of an early Brando. Whether intentional or not, and I suspect it is, it’s an obvious comparison in this adaptation of Hal Borland’s novel of the same name.

“You must learn the new ways.”

Produced and directed by Stuart Millar, Legends begins with a young Indian boy, a member of the Ute Tribe living on his own in the backwoods after both of his parents have passed. His only companion is a tamed bear. When he’s brought by a tribe elder into a local New Mexico town, he’s to be integrated into the white man’s modern world with others of his own kind. The whole prologue is a cruel window to what was surely a regular occurrence to young native Americans at the time. The boy will grow up with a hell of a chip on his shoulder and I can’t say I blame him. Enter Forrest taking over the character as an eighteen year old who seldom speaks but has a passion for horses.

It’s while being hazed by a bunch of rowdy barflies that Widmark witnesses Forrest’s prowess at riding a wild untamed horse and he sees in the boy an opportunity to make money. This leads  Widmark to legally taking him into his custody until he’s 21 and removing him from the reservation. Widmark then brings him back to his own rundown ranch house to teach the boy how to ride rodeo style atop the bucking broncs. From here the pair will join a minor league rodeo circuit drifting town to town, barroom to barroom.

Forrest wants to prove his worth and be the best that he can be while Widmark knowing the kid is good turns out to be little more than a drunken hustler. He forbids the kid to win the rodeo prize money but instead take the fall only to hustle bettors after the rodeo closes atop the same horse at big odds. While the pair are making good cash, Forrest is ashamed of what he’s becoming and wants to ride to win.

“I’m thru losing.”

Fisticuffs follow and Widmark’s bad side surfaces with racial slurs and the classic, “without me your nothing.” The truth is he’s losing his meal ticket and he knows it. When he goes on his next bender and continues his verbal abuse the young man revolts and unleashes his pent up anger. He’ll beat Widmark and will ultimately leave him in a road side liquor store moving on to what will become a successful year where his name will become well known on the rodeo circuit to fellow riders and fans alike.

Widmark will come back into the story but I’ll leave it to you to see where this character study takes the two men.

By this point in his career Widmark was still a very well known actor in Hollywood but was entering the years when he’d rotate between television projects and theatrical films. Many of which were star studded affairs where he played second lead in titles like The Domino Principle, The Swarm, Rollercoaster and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. Legends was something a bit different from him and he delivered a solid performance as the hard drinking, abusive surrogate father to Forrest.

Forrest himself was just beginning his career but it’s one that never caught a major role to catapult him to stardom like some of his young contemporaries. Namely Pacino and DeNiro. Still Forrest would work regularly and in a number of Coppola productions including Apocalypse Now. If he was channeling Brando here he’d get the opportunity to meet and work alongside him in Arthur Penn’s rather odd The Missouri Breaks in  1976. I enjoyed his performance here. At times he’s like a keg of dynamite on the verge of exploding while at others he never loses his childlike wonder at seeing new things in the modern world yet never lets his joy come too close to the surface as he maintains his distance from all those around him. This includes a fling he’ll have with Luana Anders who nurses him back to health after a rodeo scare.

There’s plenty of beautiful landscape caught on camera in Colorado and New Mexico where the film was shot and according to the opening credits, with the help of the Southern Ute Tribe. It should also be noted that the riding scenes are very well done with Forrest smoothly spliced into the action. Movie buffs will be sure to pick out character player Vito Scotti as Widmark’s ranch hand and cook while fans of classic country music may have noticed the name Freddie Hart in the credits. Freddie’s got a trio of songs playing in the backdrop though his biggest chart success, Easy Loving, is not among them.

I would think Legends a rare film not having seen it since the early 1980’s on late night TV. Now that it’s turned up from Fox’s made on demand department perhaps it might find a renewed appreciation. Worth a look.