The Hero’s Journey in “Tom Horn”

“TOM HORN” has a number of things to recommend it, chief among them the redoubtable Steve McQueen. McQueen makes his return to the screen after too long a hiatus, as he moves sternly and gracefully through the role of a former frontiersman who can’t make his peace with the new gentility of the old West. The film itself is schematic and often slow, and nothing else about it has the idiosyncratic fire of McQueen’s performance. But its slack stretches are fairly negligible, and the best episodes are worth waiting for.

This was Steve McQueen’s second to last film and he was already ill from the cancer that would eventually kill him in 1980. In Tom Horn, McQueen stars as the title character, a frontier scout with a legendary reputation. He worked for the Teddy Roosevelt administration, for the Pinkerton agency, was known for catching Geronimo, etc. He waltzes into town and gets off on a bad foot when boxer Jim Corbett beats him up. He’s eventually hired by cattle farmer John C. Coble (Richard Farnsworth) to help catch (well, kill really) the cattle thieves that are a plague on other farmers. While he’s cleaning up the joint, he meets Glendolene (Linda Evans), a local schoolteacher who is instantly smitten with him and the two have a sweet romance.

Unfortunately Tom Horn is causing too much destruction and in an effort to get rid of him someone frames Tom for the murder of a young boy. The film follows Tom as he goes to trial for a crime he most likely did not commit. The real life Tom Horn was convicted yet later exonerated for the murder in 1993, 90 years after his death. McQueen lends Horn a grace and resignation that stay understated even when the film turns clumsily emphatic. And the sadness he brings to the role is quietly, effectively pervasive. He seems at once on a grander and smaller scale than the rest of the movie, offering tiny, pared-down gestures against those grand landscapes. And even when the film’s relative ordinariness does little to aggrandize his character, he rises to heroic stature.