When Kristina and Ruth first announced a blogathon devoted to Canadian film, my initial thought was “The Grey Fox.” This revisionist Western, starring Richard Farnsworth and based on the real-life outlaw Bill Miner, is one of my favorites of the genre.
Alas, alack, the movie only got a release on VHS format many years ago and has yet to be offered on DVD. It’s virtually unavailable.
So I chose another film. That film is only available on iTunes. The short version of why I’m not reviewing it for the blogathon: iTunes sucks. (I’ll be fair and mention I will receive a refund for the rental fee, though.)
I went searching for a last-minute substitute and was thrilled to find someone had posted a video rip of The Grey Fox on YouTube. (Shh–don’t tell anyone–shh!) The unfortunate part is the quality of the print is not that great (hence the not-great quality of the accompanying screen-caps, sorry). My wish for anyone seeing The Grey Fox for the first time is to see it with a pristine print, because unless my memory is messing with me big-time, I recall the cinematography as especially glorious.
More on the injustice of great films not available for viewer consumption later. On to the film itself:
Bill Miner was an American-born outlaw who had a long career as a stagecoach robber and an even longer one as a prison inmate. He was so polite and well-mannered when he held-up people that he was known as “The Gentleman Bandit.” It is believed he was the first to use the term “hands up!” during robberies.
Released from prison after a more than 30-year stretch, he soon went back to his life of crime. Stagecoaches were a thing of the past, so he graduated to robbing trains. After a failed train robbery in Oregon, he escaped to British Columbia. He is often credited with master-minding the first train robbery in Canada (though this is disputed by some).
Directed by Phillip Borsos and written by John Hunter, the film follows many of the facts of Miner’s life after his release from prison, with, of course, a few fanciful additions and a bit of tweaking with the timeline of events. As in real-life, the film’s Miner leaves prison in 1901. It almost feels a bit like a time-travel story, as Miner is suddenly confronted with a new century, new technology and a newfangled invention called cinema.
From a scene where a salesman on a train demonstrates a contraption that automatically peals apples, to Miner startled by one of those horseless carriages, to him watching the film The Great Train Robbery with utterly fascinated eyes, the newness of the world around him is conveyed in many clever ways.
Miner has trouble adjusting to the life of a common working stiff. The movie shows how exploitative many employers were, with ridiculously low wages they further diminished with deductions for various trumped-up reasons. But it is careful not to make Miner look like a man who committed crimes out of desperation. He LIKES his life as a bandit. He explains to his sister (Samantha Langevin) that he has ambitions in him he can’t suppress.
Compared to most Westerns, revisionist and otherwise, The Grey Fox doesn’t have as many action scenes as you would expect. This is a quieter, more introspective film. Violence bubbles up almost without warning. When confronted with a young outlaw who wants him to join his gang, Miner rebuffs him so the fellow pulls a knife. Miner hits him with a bottle and warns him off with his newly-acquired gun–and in true Gentleman Bandit fashion, immediately apologizes to the other patrons in the bar for the disturbance.
During the conversation with the young outlaw, Bill espouses some of his philosophy. “A professional always specializes,” in answer to the offer that he rob banks with the new gang. “A professional never begs,” when the outlaw pleads with Bill to give him a few dollars.
The film follows most of the major events of Miner’s life after his release from prison: the disastrous first attempt at train robbery in Oregon, his escape to Canada, his association with a man named Shorty Dunn (Wayne Robson), his successful first train robbery in Canada, and Miner and Dunn settling in a town called Kamloops, where they pull some jobs for an old associate of Bill’s.
In Kamloops, Miner encounters a woman named Kate Flynn (Jackie Burroughs). Kate is a photographer and feminist. Bill becomes intrigued by her and begins courting her. This is probably one of the fanciful bits of the movie, as unlike most of the details that make it into the film, I found no mention of her in any of Miner’s biographical data. But who cares? It’s so refreshing to see a mature romance in a movie. (They even get a love scene in bed!) Best of all, the relationship is portrayed as one of genuine affection and mutual respect, yet it never becomes treacly.
As Bill becomes more involved with Kate he also becomes more entrenched as a citizen of the town. He even gains the friendship of a local lawman named Seavey (Gary Reineke). Eventually, of course, the Pinkertons catch up with Bill and his newly-constructed life begins to unravel.
This movie belongs to Richard Farnsworth. A stunt man and bit player most of his adult life, he worked in some of the great classic Hollywood films, including Gunga Din, Gone with the Wind, Spartacus and Ben Hur. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that he began acting in credited roles. In 1979 he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in the film Comes a Horseman. But it is with The Grey Fox that he truly broke through as an actor.
I’ve always loved movie actors who know how to act with just their faces and eyes, and Farnsworth does this to maximum effect in The Grey Fox. They say acting is reacting, and Farnsworth’s reactions are perfect here. You see all the decades of life he has witnessed in his eyes. His joy when successfully pulling a job is almost palpable. He never tries to make Bill a hero–he’s just a person living his life the only way he knows how. The honesty of his performance is so compelling, even if the rest of the movie had not been good it still would have lifted it up.
The good news is other aspects of the movie are great, too. The other star of the movie is the British Columbia setting. As I mentioned earlier, the cinematography (by Frank Tidy) is breathtaking. This is most notable in a scene where Miner and Dunn try to rustle some horses and unexpectedly encounter an oncoming train when they are moving the horses across the tracks.
I must also mention the soundtrack. The original music was written by Michael Conway Baker, but Paddy Moloney, of the famed Irish band The Chieftains, also contributed Irish folk music that enhances many of the scenes. Farnsworth himself sings an old American folk tune “Sweet Betsy from Pike.” The tune is echoed in scenes between Bill and Kate. In the aforementioned horse rustling scene, classical music (Bill and Kate both enjoy opera) is used to great effect.
Another aspect of the movie I love is how director Borsos conveys the end of an era and the beginning of the myth of the West. Bill watching The Great Train Robbery isn’t just a way to show how he was inspired to find a new direction in his career in crime, I believe. Later in the film, as Bill and his associates are pursued by Mounties, Borsos intercuts scenes from The Great Train Robbery. While Miner and his gang do not go out in a blaze of glory like those characters (perhaps because they were chased by Mounties, who aimed for the leg rather than the head), it hardly seems to matter. In that little corner of Canada, they were already becoming celebrities for their exploits. The movie both deconstructs the myth of the outlaw hero and recognizes how it endures to this day.
Now, back to the film not being available on DVD and/or Blu-ray. Zoetrope Studios is listed as the film’s distributor. This is of note because Borsos (who died of cancer at the age of 41) was a protégé of Francis Ford Coppola, who founded Zoetrope. Of course, it’s perfectly possible they don’t hold DVD distribution rights, but if they do, WHY not make it available?
Someone needs to get on that, because this film deserves to be seen again in all its original glory.