Steve McQueen's second-to-last feature film "Tom Horn" remains one of his least-seen. The troubled production was a long time in the making and was a personal obsession for McQueen, who was well-versed in the life of Horn, a celebrated frontier scout in the Old West who had reached legendary status, though his name doesn't resonate today the way Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok's have. Horn distinguished himself in the Apache Wars and played a role in the defeat of the fiercely independent tribe. Ironically, he met Geronimo at his surrender to the U.S. Army and befriended the great chief, who came to admire Horn. McQueen produced "Tom Horn" through his own production company, Solar, and the film was also released under the umbrella of First Artists, the company he had formed years before with Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Barbra Streisand and Paul Newman with the goal of giving actors more control over the final content of the movies they made. The production was a mess from day one. McQueen had last enjoyed a major hit with the 1974 release of the blockbuster "The Towering Inferno". He was one of the biggest stars in the world but his long-festering personal demons got the better of him. He went into semi-retirement, emerging only to release an art house film production of Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" in 1978 that barely saw release. At the same time, McQueen's personal appearance had changed radically. He grew a unkempt beard and long hair and began to resemble Grizzly Adams. Simultaneously, his reputation for being difficult and unpredictable alienated him from the major studios. By the time McQueen decided to make a comeback in mainstream films, the welcome mat was no longer out for him. Still, he succeeded in getting a distribution deal for "Tom Horn" through Warner Bros.
Troubles began even before the cameras turned. McQueen had numerous directors involved with the project (including Don Siegal) but they found McQueen too demanding and impossible to work with. He wanted to direct the film himself but wasn't a member of the Director's Guild. As he did with his 1972 bomb "Le Mans", McQueen hired a director he felt he could manipulate. In this case it was William Wiard, a respected veteran of many well-known TV series but who had never directed a feature film before. (Rumors flew that McQueen actually "ghost-directed" much of "Tom Horn".) McQueen also caused celebrated screen writer William Goldman to leave the project but he was replaced by Thomas McGuane, who was recognized as an expert on the life of Tom Horn. (The script was co-written by Bud Shrake, who only wrote a few little-seen films previously.) Just prior to filming, McQueen, a lifelong chain smoker, developed a bad cough that persisted throughout the shoot. It was an omen that bode ominously for McQueen.
The film opens with Horn arriving in Wyoming, already a celebrated legend of the west. He's low-key and lives on the hoof, traveling lightly with his beloved horse, whose ornery nature acts as a weapon for Horn when he finds himself in tight spots. He's approached by John C. Coble (Richard Farnsworth), representing the local Cattleman's Association. They are being robbed blind by rustlers and the local lawmen are either impotent or in on the robberies. Coble hires Horn to stop the rustling by whatever means necessary as long as the Association isn't tied to his actions. In short order, Horn sets to work, gunning down numerous cattle thieves even when he's outnumbered. Before long, the rustling stops but by then the carnage caused by Horn has instilled a backlash in the local population, who suspect he was working as a secret assassin for the Association- which, in fact, he was. The Association decides that Horn is now expendable. He is framed for a murder (though in real life, it was never proven whether he committed the crime or not), is arrested and sentenced to hang by a kangaroo court.
By the time "Tom Horn" opened in early 1980, word-of-mouth on the film was that it was a lemon. The arduous editing process increased the production costs and Warner Bros. was eager to simply be rid of it. Critics loathed the film and it bombed at the boxoffice, marking a major setback for McQueen's plans to re-establish himself as a major boxoffice star. A re-edited version fared no better and "Tom Horn" vanished from theaters quickly. Still, there is much merit in the film beginning with McQueen's low-key playing of Horn as a quiet, humble man. He even keeps his dignity on the scaffold when a new-style hanging device powered by water leaves Horn in the torturous situation of waiting patiently for the water to rise in a bucket in order to activate the trap door. The film is peppered with some wonderful character actors, the most impressive being Richard Farnsworth as Horn's only true friend. Farnsworth had been in so many westerns he practically looked like he walked directly out of a Frederic Remington painting. Also to be found: Billy Green Bush, Elisha Cook Jr, Geoffrey Lewis, Harry Northup and Slim Pickens (who had appeared with McQueen in the 1972 hit "The Getaway"). Linda Evans is cast as a schoolteacher with an exotic background (she immigrated from Hawaii) but her role seems to have suffered in the editing process. She has virtually nothing to do other than provide McQueen with an underwritten love interest. The film boasts great cinematography by John A. Alonzo and a fine score by Ernest Gold, who relies on drumbeats to provide an appropriate dirge-like quality. "Tom Horn" isn't a great western, but it's a very good one and it deserved a better fate. McQueen was already in the early stages of cancer when the movie opened. He managed to complete one more mainstream film before his death: the lightweight action comedy "The Hunter", also released in 1980. Ironically, it proved to be a modest hit and might have helped McQueen revive his career had he not succumbed to his increasingly serious health issues.
The Warner Bros. DVD of "Tom Horn" has a very impressive transfer and includes the original trailer and a promo clip for the video release of McQueen's TV series "Wanted: Dead or Alive". Given the interesting background to the film, it calls out for a special edition.