Comes a Horseman is an Alan J. Pakula film, one that marks his increasingly downward spiral after Pakula’s extraordinary trilogy of paranoia, comprising Klute, The Parallax View and All The President’s Men. He would go on to make some other films of note, including Sophie’s Choice and the comedy Starting Over, along with various thrillers in the ’90s, which were John Grisham adaptations or Grishamesque knock-offs. But any notion of Pakula as an auteur rests squarely the trilogy of paranoia he did in the early to mid ’70s. His one film from the ’60s, The Sterile Cuckoo, has a cult following as well.
Here, Pakula is tackling a western, although one set in the ‘1940s. As you might imagine, it isn’t completely in his ball park, he would never attempt another in his career. Jane Fonda plays Ella Connors, who is the last holdout amongst local landowners while Jason Robard’s rancher Jacob W. Ewing is buying up all the territory around for its oil. Richard Farnsworth is fantastic as the aging cowhand who Ella relies on to help run the place. James Caan is a war vet who Ella sells some land to so she can continue the family ranching business, and who wants to help Ella keep the land. It’s the typical American story of the little people against the big, evil land baron who wants control by any means necessary.
The problem is that despite the obvious talent on and behind the screen, it is a bit of a snore. You’ve seen this film a million times before in far superior westerns: just look at McCabe & Mrs. Miller a few years earlier, or Heaven’s Gate a few years later. The screenwriter is Dennis Lynton Clark, who was a costume/production/art director on notable films before, but you can tell isn’t that great of a screenwriter. Clark would only write two TV movies in the ’90s. The cinematography from Pakula’s frequent collaborator Gordon Willis is great, but the story is too intimate for the cinematography to really pop—it would have worked better as an epic modern western in the vein of Giant. The performances from everybody are great, with Farnsworth being the real stand-out. He was nominated for an Oscar.
Despite the criticisms above, BFI has compiled a nice disc. The real highlight is a recent career retrospective video Q&A with Jane Fonda, which touches on everything in her long, varied and fascinating life in candid detail. The writer Scott Harrison supplies a commentary track, while an old audio recording of Pakula doing a Q&A at NFT serves as an alternative commentary track. The theatrical trailer and some British shorts related to cattle are thrown in from the BFI archive. The booklet includes writing from Peter Tonguette, Brad Stevens and Peter Kramer.