The Grey Fox (1982)
“...course, to a man my age, the future don’t mean too much, unless you’re maybe thinkin’ about next week.”
Old-timers are often the most interesting characters on the big screen; those crowfoot eyes and rugged features teaching us how we should or should not live. The male domain (and domination) of the Old West treated the women and ‘savages’ the same way as the land — ravaged, raped and conquered — rather than show the compassion their female and indigenous counterparts prided themselves in. Over the years we have accepted such conventions of the genre; grabbed them by the reins and dug in the spurs until the horse bleeds. But, every so often, there is a contrast in some of the more revisionist and modern pieces that explore man’s retribution or the acceptance of how one has lived — whether it is Clint Eastwood’s Bill Munny embracing his dark past and bringing down the wrath of God in his Oscar winner Unforgiven (1992) or Harry Dean Stanton’s more cathartic swan song in John Carroll Lynch’s eponymous Lucky (2017), there are some examples that rise above and beyond the inherent issues the genre may present.
Despite being the purest form of cinema — certainly in America — the Western is often kicked to the kerb and forgotten, remaining as lost in the wilderness as Phillip Borsos’ Canadian Western The Grey Fox from 1982. Lauded by critics on its initial release — having won the Canadian Genie awards for both best film and best direction — it more than deserves the love and respect it received at the time. Possibly due to Boros’ untimely passing in 1995 at the age of 41 and having never been released on DVD, this remarkable feature debut has remained largely unseen by modern audiences until rereleased as a 4K restoration by Kino Lorber.
Originally presented by Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios (now American Zoetrope) this incredible piece of work tells the true story of stagecoach robber Bill Miner (Richard Farnsworth) who, in 1901, is released from a 30-year prison sentence. Now emerging into the 20th century a free man, he struggles to adjust and find his place in the modern world, until one day he sees the first Western committed to celluloid: Edwin S. Porter’s 11-minute silent film, The Great Train Robbery (1903).
The key moment — a prime example of Stanley Kubrick’s method of non-submersible units — not only defines the Western genre but also its characters, the filmmaking and history of cinema (quite literally) in one sitting. As he settles into his seat, Farnsworth’s performance exudes the spirit of a five-year-old boy watching their first movie, while at the same time revealing the soul of this ‘Gentleman Bandit’ through radiant blue eyes. With his features illuminated by the screen, we are immediately brought into the mythic quality of cinema and what it presents to us. Here it romanticises the wild part of the West (and those infamous characters), while the referencing continues to pull us in.
We feel we should be raising our own hands as the iconic moment in The Great Train Robbery plays out; the bandit firing directly at the viewer. It not only epitomises the breaking of the fourth wall but also reminds Miner (and ourselves) of his earlier life. While we check for bullet wounds, we can’t help but feel there is some irony in the fact that Bill Miner termed the phrase “Hands up!” in the first place. As we sit there in the darkened space we contemplate the blurring of boundaries between the law and the outlaw along with the meta-boundaries of these celluloid heroes. In the meantime, the moment is so exciting for the rest of the audience that they fire their own weapons — we’re startled as much as our anti-hero. Slowly the gun smoke settles and the next chapter of Miner’s twilight years is forged in a heartbeat.
Up to this point, Miner’s life is more than reminiscent of that poignant moment when James Whitmore’s Brooks is released into a faster world in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) as he similarly avoids being run over by an automobile. The world, it would seem, “Went and got itself in a big damn hurry.” Miner soon decides to adopt the pseudonym George Edwards before adapting to train robberies. After a botched attempt in America, he moves on to British Columbia where he commits the first-ever train robbery in that region. Along the way he meets a strong-willed photographer, Kate, (Jackie Burroughs) and a relationship begins to develop between the two, giving us some hope that Miner will settle and leave his former life behind.
Another beautiful moment lingers on him picking up a colt; its heft and craftsmanship captured as though it’s as polite as he is. Miner studies it, pulls the hammer, and lifts and tilts it sideways before turning it upright in one fluid motion. Along with the inspired moment in the cinema, this scene not only demonstrates Borsos’ eye for framing and movement but also Richard Farnsworth’s breakthrough as an actor.
Upon its US release in 1983, Roger Ebert eloquently wrote, ‘Farnsworth is one of those unstudied, graceful, absolutely natural actors who have spent a lifetime behaving exactly as he feels. I think he is incapable of a false or a dishonest moment. He makes Miner so proud, so vulnerable, such a noble rascal, that the whole movie becomes just a little more complex because he’s in it.’ While in The New York Times, Vincent Canby perfectly summarised his presence, ‘Mr. Farnsworth is a delight, his face an ever-changing landscape of the soon-to-be-vanished frontier.’
Although most well-known for his Oscar-nominated roles in Alan J. Pakula’s Comes a Horseman (1978), the Lynch-light road movie The Straight Story (1999) and Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery (1990), Farnsworth was, for the majority of his career, one of Hollywood’s most respected stuntmen. From his first gig at the age of 16 on A Day at the Races (1937) to Spartacus (1960), he made numerous uncredited appearances as an actor in some of the most iconic films of all time, including Gone with the Wind (1939), Red River (1948), The Wild One (1953), and The Ten Commandments (1956) where his stunt work often spilt into background working as an extra. Farnsworth’s life is a movie in its own right and with his casting in the role of Bill Miner, he managed to bring as much heft and history to the role as the colt he plays with at the beginning.
Although the film is not an American Western in origin, perhaps it is the Canadian roots and approaches to the subject that are the reason it takes on a more sedated and internal study. There’s a stillness to Borsos’ method — a mentality reminiscent of several other recent modern ‘WesTens’ such as John Maclean’s Slow West (2015), Scott Cooper’s Hostiles (2017) and S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk (2014). Remove the violence and horror from these recent examples and this is what you would be left with — a fitting exploration of character — where Miner’s unusual politeness and stubborn mule mentality becomes the spirit of such a contemplative film that would form the perfect companion piece to David Lowery’s The Old Man and the Gun (2018) starring Robert Redford.
Miner is portrayed as a man quick on the draw but slow in his thoughts. While travelling to nowhere at the beginning — his future uncertain — a salesman tells him about electricity revolutionising the kitchen and presents him with an apple peeler the size of an old hand drill. “That sounds mighty fine...” he politely responds as he gives it a go, “...course, to a man my age, the future don’t mean too much, unless you’re maybe thinkin’ about next week.”
The dialogue is just one of many other perfect elements. You are completely lost in Frank Tidy’s masterful renaissance-style cinematography of lilac horizons and the frost-filled grounds, elevating the film in the same way he did for Ridley Scott’s feature debut The Duellists (1979). The considered editing adds all the more to the melancholic nature as dialogue fragments from scenes and silent footage punctuate the film throughout. The music is yet another element that lends The Grey Fox its authentic nature — from The Chieftains’ traditional Irish score to the hint of the silent film piano accompaniments during Miner’s robberies — these traces and bullet holes of early cinematic history and the genre make complete sense to Miner’s own acts of observation and moves beyond any simple character study.
Kino Lorber’s 4K restoration is a sight to behold and for true appreciators of cinema and the Western genre, it is an absolute must-see. Not only is it the ultimate accolade to two wonderfully talented people and their legacy but also another example of a defining moment for film from a year already filled with countless masterpieces.