As the Annals of Film History come to resemble the Annals of Film Remakes more and more every day, one might suppose it’s only a matter of time before someone digs up The Electric Horseman and updates it with a modern twist. If we’re going by plot alone, Horseman has in fact already been remade a thousand times; there’s nothing earth-shatteringly original about the concept, or the characters, or the message, or the way the whole thing comes together. It’s very nearly your everyday run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, sharing a great many characteristics with all of those other romantic comedies, except for the fact that the romance outplays the humor at every turn. Horseman‘s a lot more enjoyable if you can manage to ignore genre classifications, or ignore the fact that you loathe country music. I’m happy to be your guide on both.
Mainly The Electric Horseman has something a lot of romantic comedies don’t: Robert Redford. Over the course of seven collaborations, Redford and Sydney Pollack essentially only made two films that weren’t structured around the romance of Redford’s character with a woman smitten by his jawline and just-visible chest hair. Both Jeremiah Johnson and Three Days of the Condor overshadow the likes of Horseman, but the other four romantic films — This Property is Condemned, The Way We Were, Out of Africa and Havana — probably do too. That’s without considering the zillion other films that Redford made in the ’70s, the busiest time in his career.
But Sonny Steele is a classic Redford character, timed perfectly at the end of that decade and built on everything that Redford had done up to that point. A four-time rodeo champion (Sonny: “Five!“), most of Sonny’s time is now spent advocating for Ranch Breakfast cereal, a division of AmpCo. Television commercials, billboards, public appearances and Vegas shows all utilize Sonny not for his rodeo expertise but for his recognizable face and name. The film’s opening montage subtly shows Sonny’s name getting smaller and smaller on newspapers and flyers, his billing reduced from Rodeo Star to AmpCo Ranch Breakfast Cowboy. Life-sized cardboard cutouts of Sonny get as much screentime as the actual person in that opening. Most humiliating of all? Sonny’s more or less forced to wear a ridiculous purple cowboy outfit with Christmas lights strung along the fringe, hence: the Electric Horseman.
The metaphor works double-time. First, while nothing new, the depiction of the cowboy as a dying breed or a commercialized bastardization of the True American Hero is particularly effective in Electric Horseman‘s opening segments. The whole idea of a frontiersman might suggest a DIY approach to life itself, forging boldly ahead to lands yet untouched by civilization with only the boots on your feet to get you there. As Sonny prepares for yet another Vegas appearance, his assistant literally has to pick up his legs and force the boots onto his feet for him. Vegas itself is laughing at Sonny, at all “cowboys”, because the West that they sought is now coated in lights just like Sonny’s purple costume. No one mentions that he’s a rodeo champion without including the word “former” somewhere in the description. A show coordinator asks if the drunk, manually-booted Sonny is going to make it, to which one of his hands replies “Sure — don’t he always?” The hand leads Sonny toward the gate, and the show coordinator lingers behind so we might hear his reply: “No.”
Secondly, the sense of the evaporation of the American Dream works to spitshine perfection with Redford, as it sometimes does whether he’s playing a cowboy or not. We talked about Redford’s dual status as the most effective portrait of the Dream and the most effective destroyer of the Dream in our review of The Great Waldo Pepper, and Pollack brings George Roy Hill’s earlier Redford character to a logical conclusion in Horseman: the destruction of Sonny’s Dream has already occurred, and he’s just now realizing it. At best, these two points — the fact that Sonny’s a cowboy and the fact that Sonny is Robert Redford — work together to suggest that Sonny is a man out of time, swaggering through a casino instead of a saloon, as if the Sundance Kid had been born a couple decades too late.
When The Electric Horseman shifts into the second half the film loses a bit of that sad spark. Sonny has his Big Revelation and steals AmpCo’s prized million-dollar racehorse, aiming to set it free in the wild, clear in his vision that the oppressive cages of the modern world will never be able to contain certain wonders. Sonny himself needs this to be true, which is largely why people rally to his cause Convoy-style and why a beautiful journalist (Jane Fonda) falls in love. But the marketing of The Electric Horseman provides an ironic parallel to the themes of the film itself by emphasizing that second half, forcing the movie into the boots of a romantic comedy while forgetting that it used to be something else altogether. You can bet a remake would do away with that opening right quick, as evidenced by the thousand-odd “Hero Gets Girl, Thunder Back” rom-coms. Those movies don’t have Robert Redford (usually), and they don’t have the cowboy Sonny Steele, and they don’t have Sydney Pollack’s sense of the necessity of first experiencing a little bit of tragedy before we get to redemption.