Ella Connors is a single woman who gets pressured to sell her failing cattle farm to her corrupt ex suitor, Jacob Ewing. She asks for help from her neighbor, Frank Athearn. As Ella and Frank fight back through stampedes, jealousy, betrayal, and sabotage...they eventually find love.
"This is heartland. Cattle country. That's the way it's going to stay."
I love it when a filmmaker can take a particular well-established genre, tweak it just a bit, and make it feel fresh and new and exciting all over again. While conventions are one thing, adding new elements like changing the time period perhaps or the setting can add a little spice to a story that audiences may well be familiar with. The story of an elder cattleman with a large ranch looking to push out the littler, struggling neighbor isn't all that new of a story, but director Alan J. Pakula managed to work cinematic magic in 'Comes A Horseman' by placing the action at the end of World War Two and set the dispute between an icy Jason Robards and a fiery Jane Fonda and her hired hands James Caan and Richard Farnsworth.
J.W. Ewing (Robards) is the man of the town. He owns the largest ranch in the county. His family built the town, built the bank. Nobody in town would have anything at all if it weren't for him - or at least that's the way he sees things. After a longtime dispute with Ella Connors' (Fonda) father, J.W. looks at the land Ella inherited as a piece of his own. Only Ella isn't having it. Legally, on paper, everything is hers - but the mounting debts to the bank strain her hold. If she hopes to keep the ranch her father built, Ella with her hired hands Buck Athearn (Caan) and Dodger (Farnsworth) are going to have to round up as much wild cattle as they can. Even with a successful roundup, a bigger threat in the form of an oil prospector by the name of Atkinson (George Grizzard) threatens the way of life both Ella and J.W. have spent years building, and J.W. will do anything to protect what belongs to him.
The late great Alan J. Pakula was always an impressive filmmaker to me. He always had a knack for taking a relatively unassuming genre like a thriller or a western or a drama and give them a uniquely human touch to them. Characters look and feel genuine in ways that make them easily relatable. They may star well-known actors and actresses, but the characters feel like real people you could meet in the world. Pakula also had a particular gift for directing strong central roles for women, 'Klute,' 'Sophie's Choice,' and 'The Pelican Brief' are prime examples of this ability and 'Comes A Horseman' is no exception.
As I said in my opener, 'Comes A Horseman' isn't all that new or original of a story. It's one that has been told several times over in countless other westerns over the years. It's the approach that's new and exciting. By placing the action at the tail end of the 1940s when WWII is winding down, a time when the robust cattle industry is threatened because the army doesn't need to buy beef to feed soldiers gives the film a feeling of finality. A way of life is coming to an end. With cars, trucks, airplanes, phones - the world has become a smaller place and people like J.W. and Ella are going to have a difficult time fitting into the new mold. When the oil prospectors come through and perform their test explosions for wells, it's a horrifying sight to see Jane Fonda watch the land her character has known all her life be destroyed in concussive explosions. It's the new world encroaching on old values and the friction makes for some impressive dramatic performances.
Following her impressive Oscar-winning performance in Klute, Jane Fonda is the heart and soul of the show. Her hard-edged Ella is caught between the generations. As she struggles to hold onto the traditions men like her father or Jason Robards' J.W. built, she's also forced to accept new ways of doing things like the ones James Caan's Buck brings to the table. Cann brings his signature soft-spoken strength to the role of a man trying to find his place in the world. Acting as her conscience is Richard Farnsworth's Dodger. In his breakout role, Farnsworth went from being bit player and stuntman to Oscar-nominated supporting actor with this heart-wrenching performance. As the soft and gentle father Ella never had, Farnsworth delivers a memorable performance in a film filled with terrific actors at the top of their game.
'Comes A Horseman' isn't the rousing cattle drive film of 'Red River' nor is it the dueling family drama of 'The Big Country' but a sort of amalgamation of the two western tropes. It's a beautifully shot film that makes great use of its Arizona locations. These are simple characters occupying large swaths of land whose goals and needs in life may be small to most of us, but it means the world to them. 'Comes A Horseman' is a simple western told by a smart filmmaker with some fantastic performances from its central cast which is all you can ask of any film of this sort.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Comes A Horseman' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Twilight Time and is pressed onto a Region Free BD-50 disc. The disc is housed in a clear sturdy Blu-ray case and comes with a booklet containing stills from the film as well as another exceptional essay by film historian Julia Kirgo. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
Ahead of its pre-order date, Twilight Time posted this note about the transfer for 'Comes A Horseman' on December 19th on their Facebook page: "A NOTE ABOUT THE TRANSFER: while Twilight Time believes Comes a Horseman to be a fine, and generally overlooked hidden treasure from the 1970s, and worthy of a second look by Blu-ray aficionados, we recognize it has not survived in the greatest of shape. We hope that those of you who care enough to buy a copy will forgive the unusually high (for a TT release) level of “speckling” (minus density) and general debris that mar the work of master cinematographer, Gordon Willis, in this hi-def presentation. We have rejected many other titles and transfers for similar reasons, but after some consideration decided this film was too important to let go. In light of this fact, we are offering it at a reduced price to encourage those on the fence about it. TT strives always to strike a balance between a duty to preserve the legacy of film history, as well as presenting the very best version of a film in hi-def as possible under the circumstances."
To this point, while this 2.35:1 1080p presentation of 'Comes A Horseman' has certainly seen better days, it isn't a complete travesty either. Speckling, some fine scratches, and debris are evident from time to time, there are some intermittent softness issues, and a couple scenes with slightly faded colors. That said, This is certainly not the worst transfer to be released on Blu-ray or the worst handed to Twilight Time by a studio without any proper restoration (that honor still, unfortunately, falls upon 'Titus'). Perhaps the best way to gauge the transfer is how it appears scene to scene. One moment, the shot can feature a natural grain presence with terrific details, beautifully vivid colors, fantastic black levels, and can look like a solid 4/5 catalogue release. At its worst, 'Comes A Horseman' can be marred with softness issues that almost make the image look like it was sourced from an upscaled DVD. When it's great, it's gorgeous. When it falters, it looks merely okay. This is simply a case of a great film not being properly stored and I would gather that the print sourced for this transfer is something of an amalgam of different elements spliced together without undergoing any genuine restoration effort. All in all, I'm calling this one a respectable 3/5. It has moments where it genuinely looks amazing, but there are some stretches that leaves you wishing Fox/MGM had treated it better before providing Twilight Time with this transfer.
With a robust DTS-HD MA 1.0 mix, 'Comes A Horseman' sounds fantastic. Thankfully the visual issues aren't carried over into this audio track as the mix sounds free and clear of any age-related issues or artifacts. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout and is never at odds with the smartly layered sound effects elements or the classic western-style score by composer Michael Small. With its restrictions as a mono track, the sense of directionality and imaging is fairly limited, but background sound effects do a great job of establishing a sense of space even in the wide open vistas of the film's locations. All around a terrific audio mix.
Original Theatrical Trailer: (SD 2:49)
I love a great western. I grew up watching everything from Spaghetti Westerns to John Wayne movies as a kid, they're part of my nature, so anytime I get a chance to sit down to one I've never seen I'm always happy when the film delivers. 'Comes A Horseman' is a terrific character drama wrapped up inside a traditional western. With amazing performances from Jane Fonda, Jason Robards, James Caan and a terrific breakout turn from Richard Farnsworth, 'Comes A Horseman' isn't only a good film, it's a great western. Twilight Time brings the film to Blu-ray in a condition that is as good as can be. There's no denying the video transfer leaves something to be desired, but the audio mix is spot on and the included Isolated Score by Michael Small is a welcome bonus feature. It may not be an ideal presentation, but I'm still going to call this release of 'Comes A Horseman' recommended.