Each new attempt to revive the Western seems to plunge the patient into a deeper coma. Arriving on the heels "of Jack Nicholson's "Goin' South," Alan J. Pakula's cataleptic "Comes a Horseman" suggests a conspiracy to kick the poor old Western while it's down.
Not that "Comes a Horseman," opening today at several area theaters, had much of a kick. Pakula imposes such a solemn tone and pictorial style on Dennis Lynton Clark's ragged, arbitrary scenario, allegedly a saga of conflict between small ranchers played by Jane Fondo and James Coan and a Big Bad Godfather of a rancher played by Jason Robards, that one seems to be witnessing a symbolic interment.
Pakula and Clark may believe they revere Westerns, but their form of respectful imitation is lifeless, strictly token respect for the dead. All too appropriately, the movie begins at the tail end of a funeral service. The filmmakers don't invest the leading characters or the ostensible conflict with any passion, let alone mythic significance. They get hung up on stylistic nuances at the expense of dramatic fundamentals. While their own story collapses in a ludicrous heap, they keep straining to evoke epiphanies and recollect moods and images from the classics.
For example, that opening funeral service is abstracted from set pieces in George Stevens' "Shane" and "Giant." The Colorado locations, doubling for what is purported to be Montana rangleland, recall the scenic terrain of "Shane," and Robards in his silver beard suggests a descendant of the intimidating Ryker brothers.However, the funerals depicted by Stevens served dramatic as well as picturesque purposes. They involved characters we were familiar with and culminated certain plot lines that had been distinctly drawn.
The funeral in "Comes a Horseman" summons up echoes from the movie past without getting a new movie intriguingly underway. We observe that some kind of enmity exists between Robards, whose son has just been buried, and Fonda, a stony-faced mourner. In a subsequent scene Fonda returns to her ranch to find Robards on the premises.At a distance of half a football field or so he vows to run her off the range. Curiously, the more we learn of this enmity, the less plausible it looks.
Fonda, encoring her absurd confrontation with Bruce Dern at the close of "Coming Home," remains silent and rooted in place for the duration of Robards' threatening oration. Has standing still become her specialty, like the old silent screams and back-to-the-audience pantomimes of stage actors?
Fonda does appear to be specializing in the romantic idealization of frigid heroines, redeemed by devotion to a worthy lover and (supposedly) worthy cause. In both "Coming Home" and "Comes a Horseman" she acts like an ideological Tin Woman, waiting to be loosened up by the miracle lubricant of sex with a disabled veteran.
Cann, cast as a GI returning from combat in 1945, gets the dubious honor of thawing out the stiff-necked, disagreeable Fonda, whose apparent excuse is that her late paps "raised her like a man." Cann and a buddy are drawn into the feud when Fonda sells them part of her property. Bushwhacked by a Robards hireling, Cann takes a bullet would in the chest and his friend is killed. Fonda grudgingly agrees to put up Cann in her barn when he's found by her amiable hired hand, Richard Farnsworth as an old wrangler called Dodger.
Caan's recovery is one of the supreme medical mysteries of movie history. As far as one can tell, he's never attended by a physician. Fonda makes it clear that she cares more about her stock than a stricken human being: She pays more attention to a newborn calf than she does to the stricken Caan.
This "flinty" introduction may have been intended to make the heroine's eventual romantic come around all the more impressive. Unfortunately, it tends to make her look as undesirable and fanatic as the would-be villain.
The conflict between the ranchers and homesteaders in "Shane" was clearly dramatized, and the frontier setting looked so raw that one could believe the law was hundreds of miles away. The antagonism in "Comes a Horseman" never does make sense.
Robards and Fonda act equally pigheaded on their precious range and equally ruthless about setting their own way.
And Clark lets the plot tie itself in knots.
The weakness of the alleged big rancher-small rancher social conflict forces him to borrow a leaf from "Chinatown": Fonda claims that Robards took advantage of her when she was a girl. Robards' power is contradicted by the revelation that an oil company actually owns his land. When he retaliates by conspiring to murder an oil executive and a local banker who can doubt that he's not so much a Ryker brother as Don Vito Corleone on the range?
By the time "Comes a Horseman" wheezes to an anticlimatic fadeout, Robards' depredations have began to resemble Gothic camp. Hanging corpses upside down, locking the hero and heroine inside a closset while he sets their house aflame, the villain joins the tradition of overreaching maniacs in shock horrow of melodramas.
The berserk plot inflicts a contradictory value system on the filmmakers, who alternately abhor and condone a form of rugged individualism that looks demented on both villain and heroine.
Socially, the best thing for the community (or what there is of it in this undermanned film) would probably be a mutually fatal shootout between Fonda and Robards.