The year is 1901, and stagecoach robber, Bill Mine (Richard Farnsworth, The Straight Story), has been released from prison after serving a 33-year sentence. Mine finds out that the world has changed a lot in three decades.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“I got ambition in me that just won’t quit.”
There are three reasons why The Grey Fox is worth seeing: Richard Farnsworth, Richard Farnsworth, and Richard Farnsworth. The stuntman-turned-character-actor’s extraordinary performance as real-life highwayman Bill “The Grey Fox” Miner is the beating heart of this melancholic western. The movie must also be praised for exploring in great depth the mythology of the American West.
Like William A. Fraker’s classic Monte Walsh (1970), The Grey Fox is an elegiac western that takes place during the very last years of the Wild West era. But the film is more than an examination of the dying Old West because below the surface it’s a self-reflective western that aspires to say something meaningful about the genre.
The Grey Fox was directed by Phillip Borsos (The Mean Season and One Magic Christmas), a Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) protégé (Coppola’s film company, Zoetrope Studios, financed the movie), and written by John Hunter. Borsos and Hunter fuse western myths with the harsh realities of the Old West marvelously.
The Grey Fox constantly reminds us of the symbiotic relationship between myth and truth. The film’s most memorable moment occurs when Farnsworth attends a movie theater for the first time. What movie did he watch? The silent western The Great Train Robbery (1903), which is considered to be the first narrative film.
This rather short, but totally fascinating sequence puts forth the theory that, like a caterpillar that turns into a butterfly, the Wild West didn’t really die, it metamorphosed into the movie western. The film strongly suggests that, for better or worse, we have relied upon movies to educate us about the days of the American Old West.
But without Farnsworth’s brilliant work, none of these ideas would have come to fruition. Farnsworth doesn’t act, he inhabits the character. You never believe Farnsworth is saying memorized lines of dialogue. Plus, there isn’t an ounce of sentimentality in his characterization. I can’t praise him enough — it’s a great performance!
Farnsworth has a touching love affair with a quirky activist, superbly played by Jackie Burroughs (Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone). It was nice to see a fully developed romantic relationship between two older individuals. Also, with Timothy Webber (TV series Once Upon a Time) as Sergeant Fernie and comedian Wayne Robson (TV sitcom The Red Green Show) as Farnsworth’s sidekick, Shorty Dunn.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
The Grey Fox re-writes the fascinating true story of Bill Miner to make him more of a western anti-hero than the unrepentant criminal he really was, thereby reinforcing the meta aspects of the film. Anyhow, it’s a leisurely paced, but ambitious and very interesting movie, with Richard Farnsworth at his very best! Color, 92 minutes, Rated PG.