Any director who has made a masterpiece has to contend with viewers’ high expectations on his next effort. By 1978, Alan J. Pakula had directed three, almost consecutively, and the pressure that bore on his following film, Comes a Horseman, was therefore three times as heavy.
His ‘paranoia trilogy’ wasn’t just a success. It marked him as the ultimate director of paranoid thrillers examining American modernity, the era’s growing feelings of distrust towards the powerful, and changing mores in the country following the sexual revolution.
After the intimate Klute (1971) demonstrated that new sexual freedoms didn’t put an end to good old-fashioned greed, The Parallax View (1974) saw Pakula address more explicitly his interest in corrupt, anonymous and elusive power at the highest level, with a story centred on a political assassination. This trajectory culminated in All the President’s Men (1976), a retelling of the real-life Watergate investigation by journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
Following this progression towards increasingly urgent and direct stories about the corrupting power of money, Pakula’s choice to then tell a fictional, romantic story set in the 1940s in Comes a Horseman may understandably have confused and disappointed viewers.
The film, shot in Arizona and Colorado, has all the attributes of the western, from the vast landscapes to the cowboys and violence. It opens with a brutal attack on two farmers in which one of them (Mark Harmon) ends up dead. His partner, Frank (James Caan), is nursed back to health by a hard-working farmer, Ella (Jane Fonda), who tells him the attack was probably organised by her cousin, the greedy landowner Ewing (Jason Robards).
The figure of the powerful and cruel arch-nemesis is a classic staple of the western, from Walter Brennan’s Old Man Clanton in My Darling Clementine (1946) to Jack Palance’s Jack Wilson in Shane (1953) and Henry Fonda’s Frank in Once upon a Time in the West (1968). However, Pakula’s film departs from the classical western and delves into revisionist territory in several key ways, aside from the relatively modern setting.
Chief among these is the revelation that Ewing is in fact as powerless as anyone else is within a capitalist system of big business encroaching on land. In debt to a rich oil magnate, Ewing is forced to test his land for the expensive resource. When the magnate dies in a random plane crash, Ewing is ruined.
The insidious power of money and corporate business is central to the film and unambiguously aligns it with the paranoia trilogy. This is never clearer than in the story of Frank. The hostile welcome that the Second World War soldier receives on his return echoes the way Vietnam veterans were left to fend for themselves. It’s worth remembering here the significance of ‘Hanoi Jane’ Fonda in the film, as she was one of the first in Hollywood to openly criticise the war.
There is a notable difference, however, between the America Frank returns to in the film, and the one that, for instance, Jon Voight’s Luke finds in Hal Ashby’s contemporaneous film Coming Home. While Luke has no place to be, Frank has the possibility of living a peaceful and useful life as a cattle herder. The film opens on a close-up of Frank’s partner and brother in arms with a wide smile on his face, before the two of them guide their cattle through the beautiful landscapes of the region.
When this happy farmer is then murdered on the orders of a rich man, Pakula shows how precarious this lifestyle is. In the context of his paranoia films, we know that by the 1970s this way of life has essentially disappeared.
Indeed, Comes a Horseman explores the same topics as the paranoia trilogy, but does so by delighting in all the things that greedy, corrupt, decentralised and unaccountable power have destroyed. While the tireless work of the journalists in All the President’s Men was an isolated act of resistance, the time-consuming labour on the farm in Comes a Horseman is still a viable lifestyle. Although Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis underline the effort both activities require, Comes a Horseman presents it as a routine way of life.
Though Ella does find herself in a position of resistance against the ever-encroaching forces of capitalism – embodied by Ewing – she does not set out to do this; she simply wants to lead the life she chooses.
Though it is difficult and strenuous, farm work is never presented as soul-crushing, exhausting and isolating in the way Bernstein and Woodward’s investigating work is. Willis’s gorgeous cinematography continuously underlines the beauty of the landscape and the sensation of freedom provided by the vast expanses of land. In between long takes showing us the complicated process in hoisting a heavy bag on a horse, lassoing cows running through the valley and bringing the cattle back to the ranch, are interspersed scenes in which Frank, Ella, and her friend and employee Dodger (Richard Farnsworth, nominated for an Oscar for his performance) play guitar around the campfire, enjoying the rewards of a hard day’s work.
In such scenes, and in place of the almost surgically precise editing and the almost robotic line-readings that characterise his paranoia trilogy, Pakula allows his actors to be much more loose in their performances, even letting them improvise. And although Ella is a reserved and hard woman at first, it is only because she has too much work, and she relaxes thanks to Frank’s help – and, eventually, his love.
The film’s classical romanticism – an element that particularly baffled reviewers at the time – comes across as Pakula’s ultimate cry for a simplicity in human exchanges that greed and corruption make impossible in his trilogy (see the fraught dynamic between Donald Sutherland’s detective and Fonda’s sex worker in Klute).
As such, although the film ends on a happy note, it nevertheless feels bittersweet with the knowledge of what is to come in the trilogy’s vision of the present. Because Ewing’s evil oil-drilling plot is upended not by a force for good but simply by chance (the plane crash), it’s safe to say that the destruction of Ella and Frank’s idyllic life and the domination of capital are not vanquished, but simply delayed.