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The Electric Horseman
(1979)

Director Sydney Pollack’s fourth teaming with Robert Redford (and second with Jane Fonda) is a warm but “soft” critique of the erosion of individual values and the encroaching blight of corporate greed. Just the kind of fare you’d expect from the lead duo, really, but a bit lacking in teeth when it comes down to it. Also a bit lacking in logic in places, but it’s clear that star and director have their eyes on the bigger message rather than the “minutae” of plotting.

Washed-up rodeo star Sonny Steele (Redford) has been reduced to selling breakfast cereal (Ranch Breakfast!). He spends most of his time drunk or making public appearances in a suit bedecked with lights, riding a twelve million dollar race horse (owned by the company). Or both. When he discovers that his employers have been drugging said horse, mistreating it and pumping it full of steroids, Sonny rides her off the Vegas strip and a national manhunt for him and gee-gee begins. Jane Fonda’s journalist (Hallie Martin) quickly works out where Steele is, and tags along with him in his effort to release the horse into the wild. Of course, romance blossoms.

Pollack’s film might have been more satisfying if it had kept in focus the clash between big business and the individual. As such, the first half is the most satisfying, as jaded Steele discovers that he does actually care. The corporation, meanwhile, attempts to manipulate the media and exercise as much damage limitation as possible to present Steele in a bad light. One can’t help but feel that more could have been made of this, particularly as John Saxon’s mogul is a delightfully malign force; the more he is built up, the more pleasure there is to be had in Sonny getting the better of him. However, in the second half, the already leisurely pace reduces to an amble, as Sonny and Hallie travel by foot to a remote canyon to release the equine.

One might suggest that Sonny’s journey represents the rediscovery of traditional American values within him. But, despite the cowboy iconography, Pollack never really seems to be hearkening back to a bygone era so much as pointing out an awareness of what has been lost as a value within us. Both Sonny and the horse break free from the corrupting influence of a society founded upon money above all else, and they do so by leaving behind the urban jungle (overtly represented by Las Vegas as a wretched hive of scum and villainy) to be cleansed by the natural world.

Along the way, Fonda’s fastidious reporter is taught to lighten up too, even though she doesn’t ultimately break with her lifestyle. This isn’t a great Fonda role, truth be told; her chemistry with Redford is ever-present, but the character is overly-familiar and far less engaging than her journo in the same year’s The China Syndrome. In addition, Fonda’s hampered by an extremely unflattering perm.

Realism is low on the film’s list of priorities. Particularly anomalous is Sonny’s concern for the horse, which he then rides the hell out of to escape the law. Perhaps not the most remedial of treatments (and, I’m no horse whisperer, but would she actually take to the wild?) But this is all metaphor, and as such the whole is gently persuasive. And crowd-pleasing; Pollack throws in an extended chase sequence halfway through the film. If nothing else the ability to outrun police vehicles and cause mass carnage should inform the viewer that this is not to be taken too literally.

This was Willie Nelson’s first acting role, as one of Redford’s aides, and he acquits himself agreeably. Wilford Brimley appears too (an ex rodeo rider himself); he also appeared with Fonda in The China Syndrome.

*** 

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