Mortality and judgment cast a heavy shadow over this western which McQueen is rumored to have directed himself (after firing several directors, including Don Siegel), but which the credits tell us was helmed by William Wiard, a veteran of TV’s The Rockford Files. McQueen was already ill with mesothelioma, the fatal lung disease linked to asbestos exposure, during production, although he wouldn't be diagnosed until completing his next film, The Hunter. By the time that Tom Horn was released in spring 1980, McQueen was denying rumors (reported by The National Enquirer) that he was deathly ill. Watching the film now, one notices that McQueen moves stiffly at times. When he appears short of breath during a chase scene, he seems to be genuinely suffering.
Tom Horn suffered, too, and there’s a sadness that lingers over this beautifully photographed film. Horn, a man of the old, untamed West, who rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and helped capture Geronimo (whom he praises in an early scene), is hired to protect a town’s cattle from rustlers, but his violent efficiency is at odds with the tamer society emerging at the turn of the century.
There are several episodes depicting Horn’s unforgiving nature. When a rustler makes the mistake of killing his horse, Horn blasts the guy into eternity and continues firing long after the culprit is dead. In light of this and other incidents, political forces decide that Tom Horn must go.
The supporting cast includes such welcome faces as Slim Pickens, Richard Farnsworth, and Elisha Cook, all of whom perform ably, but this is McQueen’s show all the way. This is one of the superstar’s finest performances, filled with equal parts fury and melancholy.
Tom Horn may not have been popular with critics or audiences, but this is a small masterwork, and a fitting tribute to a screen legend.
© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks