The Electric Horseman (1979) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: PG for language and some sensuality
Running time: 120 min.
Cast: Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, John Saxon, Valerie Perrine, Willie Nelson, Nicolas Coster, Allan Arbus, Wilford Brimley, Will Hare, Sydney Pollack (cameo)
Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenplay: Robert Garland
Review published September 20, 2007
Redford (All the President's Men, Three Days of the Condor) and Fonda (Coming Home, Nine to Five) reunite for the third and final time starring together in a film, and the result is an amiable but slow and simple country-western parable, not terribly different than many others to come out in the mid to late 1970s. Redford plays a former rodeo champion named Sonny Steele, who has spent his retirement years shilling boxes of cereal that he doesn't eat and making public appearances for a corporation called Ampco, riding in rodeos adorned with glowing light bulbs. He's often late, drunk, and depressed, but finally wakes up from his stupor when he makes a Vegas appearance in a publicity event that would have the star riding a former thoroughbred champion racehorse, Rising Star. After finding out the horse is injured and injected full of steroids, Sonny decides to snatch the $12 million horse and make the long trek to set it free in horse country.
Tagging along is a tenacious news reporter named Hallie Martin, who pulls all of the tricks of her trade in order to find out Steele's whereabouts and how she can sneak out information as to his activates. Her nose for a good scoop becomes somewhat difficult to maintain once she begins to have feelings of fondness for the down-and-out rodeo star, coming to enjoy his simple ambitions and noble aspirations. The two form an unlikely partnership, although trying to stay a step ahead of law enforcement, as well as those out to seek the sizable reward for their capture, proves practically impossible.
The Electric Horseman is a film more pleasant than of great quality, spinning a yarn about a lonesome cowboy finding meaning to his existence when his days of glory are all behind him. It's a story that works on three levels: a man's journey to self discovery, a horse's rehabilitation, and a loss of the country's simple spirit in the face of technology and commercialism. The tale of the horse parallels the man's; both were once champions who have been loaded up with drugs (alcohol is Sonny's choice) which make them shells of their former glorious selves. Sonny pities the horse -- a surrogate for the pity he might feel for himself if he didn't drown his sorrows with booze every day. As he heals the horse, he heals himself, and only when the horse finds its freedom will Sonny free himself from the past as well to look forward once again.
Perhaps even more poignant is the story of the heart of America, as exemplified by the life of the cowboy that Sonny represents. The sprawling lands that were once all of America give way to major cities and large corporations, all trying to sell the American dream to the public who don't know what it means anymore. They buy the cereal featuring Sonny's likeness because they believe that they are like the ways of the rural country, full of wholesome goodness and vital nourishment. That Sonny wears an electric suit is symbolic of how the notion of Western values has been commercialized and modernized for today's audiences, while those that stem from those ways are trapped inside their new suit of technology, barely able to function anymore, owned completely by the new America. A completely urbanized "today's woman" like Hallie can only appreciate it when Sonny leads her far away from any form of urbanization, and she finds great beauty in all that the open land and freedom has to offer, like nothing else she's ever known.
That sounds like a damn fine movie, doesn't it? If only these erudite themes weren't stuffed into a suit of commercialism itself, perhaps they would have been more resonant. Director Pollack (Tootsie, The Firm) gets the story, but at the same time, big name stars and corny comedy do impede the overall message, and whatever sense of weight the film might have had is mostly lost behind predictable romance and silly car chases.
Willie Nelson (Wag the Dog, The Dukes of Hazzard) is all over the soundtrack, though the playing of his songs gets to be redundant at times. It marks his debut as an actor as well. Fans of Redford and Fonda will like this more than most, and those who love the country music flair, but it's hard not to be just a little disappointed that such fine actors, a nice script and a skillful director couldn't quite coalesce into making this anything more than an amiable way to spend two hours.
©2007 Vince Leo