Roping the legend of ‘Tom Horn,’ Steve McQueen’s overlooked 1980 western
What’s right about Tom Horn, Steve McQueen’s misunderstood penultimate film that scored tepid box office receipts in the wake of the action star’s mesothelioma death sentence? What doesn’t work? How about the western’s unsettling, downbeat finale? Why did the King of Cool not see eye to eye with three directors — Clint Eastwood mentor Don Siegel and Cat Ballou mastermind Elliot Silverstein among them — and then unofficially take the reins from the next in line?
Seven-time McQueen chronicler Marshall Terrill, accountable for the best-selling Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel and executive producer of the documentary Steve McQueen: American Icon, digs deep for a warts and all feature about the authentic Wild West saga that occupied three years of the late actor’s much too short lifespan [1930–1980].
McQueen’s passion for Tom Horn culminated in nearly 45 cassette tapes chock full of research, script notes, and consultations with historians, costumers, and Western author Louis L’Amour. A pre-Dynasty Linda Evans burst into tears when McQueen insisted, “You’re totally wrong for this part.” And McQueen and future wife Barbara Minty actually spent the night at the Boulder, Colorado, gravesite of the real life Apache Scout and range detective who was controversially convicted of murdering the 14-year-old son of a sheep rancher.
The Marshall Terrill Interview
Has McQueen’s widow Barbara Minty watched Tom Horn?
Not that I’m aware of, and I know she’d tell me if she did. Last year Barbi did see a snippet of The Magnificent Seven on TMC and said his cocky demeanor and willful personality as “Vin” in that movie was the same as Steve in real life. I thought that was an interesting insight.
Do any scenes from Tom Horn simply not work?
I hate to say this, but there’s a lot about Tom Horn that does not work, starting with the opening scene when McQueen gets into a fight with “Gentleman” Jim Corbett. It’s interesting and entertaining, but it’s not true and it doesn’t feel like it flows with the overall story or properly sets the stage. There are lots of scenes like this in Tom Horn.
I’m basing my opinion on when I first saw Tom Horn in the movie theater and my initial knee-jerk reaction to it in March 1980. Initially, it was hard for me to follow with all the different cuts and flashbacks.
I now understand why — McQueen was shooting from two different scripts and I think like the movie Le Mans, the movie was in his head and he wouldn’t allow anyone else to step on his territory.
Tom Horn is an interesting movie because it allows us to see Steve McQueen as an older and mature actor. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a cohesive story. Had he shot it like Costner did in Wyatt Earp, it would have been a different movie and much more of a classic. Of course, some may say Wyatt Earp is not a classic but I believe it is.
As it stands, the movie Tom Horn remains uneven. It was a troubled picture from the start and should have been much more than it was. Phil Parslow, who was an executive producer who eventually left the production once told me, “Tom Horn should have been Lonesome Dove.”
Meaning, it was an epic story and movie was greatly compromised when the budget was reduced from $10 million to $3 million. Sad because it had the potential for greatness. It’s a movie that could be done well — if shot as an epic as McQueen originally envisioned.
I’m not aware of any Tom Horn outtakes. In spite of shooting from two different scripts, Tom Horn was a very low budget film so they did not have the ability to shoot it different ways.
What’s right about Tom Horn?
Certainly its authenticity and its faithfulness to the period. I know McQueen did a lot of homework on the project and the era. I have about 45 cassette tapes, which shows he consulted with historians, costumers, directors and even Western author Louis L’Amour, who was in possession of many of Horn’s letters. McQueen, as documented in Steve McQueen: The Last Mile , spent the night at the grave of Tom Horn to get some sort of read or vibe on his spirit.
Certainly the cinematography is gorgeous, and I thought shooting it in wide open spaces was a very fresh and original approach. Barbara McQueen and I even visited Patagonia, Arizona, in 2012 where much of it was filmed. It remained unchanged, even down to the windmills. I’m not sure you’ll find a much more authentic looking Western than Tom Horn.
And the screen relationship between McQueen and Richard Farnsworth works. Farnsworth originally started out in the industry as a stuntman. And McQueen had him fired on Wanted: Dead or Alive on his first day of work.
Farnsworth, who was a real cowboy, told McQueen, who was rolling up the back of his cowboy hat, that he was making the hat “look like a tortilla.” So McQueen had him fired. They obviously patched things up because Farnsworth made a small but memorable appearance in Papillon.
By the time Tom Horn rolled around, Farnsworth was a seasoned actor and a strong film presence. He later won an Academy Award, something that even McQueen hadn’t accomplished during his career though he was certainly deserving in The Sand Pebbles and Papillon.
Based on the reduced $3 million budget for Tom Horn, did McQueen get the cast that he wanted?
McQueen had a very strong guiding hand in selecting the actors. Mel Novak, who played memorable villains alongside Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris and has a following in Asia and Europe, told me that when another actor couldn’t handle the dialogue of his role, McQueen told producer Fred Weintraub to call Mel and take over the role. Weintraub told Mel he had two hours to catch a plane to Tucson.
In the case of Linda Evans, I’m not sure if McQueen had a hand in her casting or not because when he first met her he said, “You’re totally wrong for this part.” The comment made her cry because she was a classical beauty and the role required her to dress down, something she was not used to.
When Evans caught her breath, McQueen said, “But we’ll make you right for this part.” He forced her to not wear makeup, wear nice clothes, or have her hair done. He stripped away all of the artifice and made her totally rely on her acting skills.
Evans later credited Tom Horn as the best part she’d ever done, and the film helped land her career-defining turn as Krystle Carrington, the long-suffering wife of Dynasty patriarch John Forsythe.
It should be noted that McQueen hired first director James Guercio. When it wasn’t working out, Fred Weintraub offered to fire him but McQueen said, “No, I hired him and so it should be me who fires him.” I think it’s safe to say McQueen was the 800-pound gorilla on Tom Horn.
How would Tom Horn have been different if Clint Eastwood’s directorial mentor Don Siegel had stuck with the project?
I believe it would have been a completely different project and helped this to become Lonesome Dove. First and foremost, McQueen would have had a very strong and mature director who could have offered an objective point of view and commercial instincts.
That’s not to say McQueen didn’t have commercial instincts, it’s just that when he acted and didn’t have to play businessman or executive director, that’s when he was at his best. Papillon is a prime example.
McQueen could also be uncompromising, which is what his fans admired about him, but when he wanted to take director’s control of a project like Le Mans or Tom Horn, he lost sight of the bigger picture. Siegel made a lot of very successful films and was at his best when working with big stars like Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, and John Wayne.
Why did Siegel end up leaving the picture?
According to Phil Parslow, Steve had problems articulating his vision. Siegel would ask him a simple question and get several complicated responses. Siegel eventually got fed up.
Siegel pulled Parslow aside one day and said, “I don’t know what this man wants to do. I come in every day, he rambles on and on. I just don’t understand him. I’m an old man, not in the greatest of health, and I don’t think I can help him. I don’t think we’ll be able to come to some conclusion of what he wants. One day it’s this, one day it’s that.”
What about Elliot Silverstein’s [Cat Ballou, A Man Called Horse] brief tenure as director No. 2?
I actually spoke to Mr. Silverstein and got his account firsthand. He said he had developed a screenplay on the idea of a relationship between Tom Horn and Geronimo based on historical reports that had been sealed for over a hundred years.
Again, he said McQueen’s inability to communicate caused problems. Silverstein wanted more of a drama while McQueen wanted an action-oriented piece. Silverstein eventually bowed out because he could see the relationship was not going to be productive. Too bad because that would have been an interesting pairing.
And what about James William Guercio, the former manager of the rock band Chicago, who was fired on the set after three days?
That’s an interesting story. According to producer Fred Weintraub, who died in March 2017, Guercio was out of his depth. He said Guercio had only one movie to his credit, Electra Glide in Blue [the 1973 cult classic about motorcycle cops in Arizona starring Robert Blake], and checked with the cameraman and first assistant director on that picture, who told him they had practically directed Electra Glide in Blue.
Weintraub said Guercio showed up on the first day of filming wearing jodhpurs, a beret, a riding crop — trying to look like Erich von Stroheim. After the third day, McQueen sensed Guercio didn’t know what he was doing and McQueen personally fired him.
Barbi McQueen actually snapped a photo of Steve actually firing Guercio. I’m sure after all of his success in the music business, Guercio must have felt deflated.
William Wiard ended up replacing Guercio. Was he the best director for Tom Horn?
William Wiard [Daniel Boone, Bonanza, M*A*S*H, Cannon, The Rockford Files], was not a director so much as a “beard” on Tom Horn. He was hired for one simple reason: to be quiet and allow McQueen to be the director by proxy.
The Directors Guild had a rule stipulating that an actor or anyone else previously involved in the picture could not assume the role of the director. That prevented people like McQueen to fire someone like Guercio and then just take over.
So basically, Wiard sat quietly and collected a paycheck, then went back to his career directing episodic television. Tom Horn was McQueen’s vision and his movie all the way.
Since McQueen was the unofficial director of Tom Horn and cared deeply about the project, did he attend any of the editing room sessions or offer feedback once shooting had wrapped?
That’s a good question and one I don’t really know. The cuts in the movie certainly bear McQueen’s signature style — lots of quick cross-cuts, out of sequence reflections, slow motion action frames, and scenes from both scripts — on them. At the very least he would have given editor George Grenville very detailed notes. Sadly, Grenville died in 2009.
You have been one of the few people in the world to listen to approximately 45 cassettes Phil Parslow taped with McQueen regarding the making of Tom Horn. What do those tapes contain and what insight did it give you into McQueen as an actor?
The tapes were conversations with directors Don Siegel and Elliot Silverstein as well as historians and costumers. I was amazed by the amount of research McQueen did for this role.
Throughout McQueen’s career people were under the impression that all he did was play variations of himself, and I guess to some degree, that is true. However, the implication was that he just showed up to work and gave his lines. That’s simply not true. McQueen spent the better part of three years researching every angle of this story, Horn’s character, what the Old West looked like, and the details of Horn’s life.
The tapes also showed how focused McQueen was when it came to his role. Even down to his walk — he walked like a real cowpoke. I know this because my maternal grandfather Lewis Fennell was a rancher and farmhand. He had the same build and walk. McQueen really knew his stuff.
There’s specifically a tape where McQueen dictates his notes into the recorder after he read one of the scripts. McQueen would mostly follow the scriptwriter but gave certain touches to scenes. One took place between Horn and the power brokers when he first came to town.
I believe the scene was originally written indoors. It was McQueen’s vision to change that to having them talk outside in a wide open space on their horses. He knew anything that took place in town and indoors would draw attention, so a very discreet outdoor meeting on a horse ride was the place to have that conversation. Pretty smart.
He knew what worked well on the screen and in the street so to speak. He felt audiences were smart and that they’d pick up on the subtlety without having to explain it to them. That always served him well.
Was McQueen wrong to insist that Horn died at the end of the movie?
That’s a very interesting question that requires a yes and no answer. No, it wasn’t wrong in terms of accurately depicting the life of Tom Horn on the silver screen. McQueen spent years researching Horn’s life, which is fairly well-known to historians and people with an affinity of the Old West. Artistically it would have been a cop-out not to have him die.
That said, box-office wise it was a mistake. I remember talking to producer Fred Weintraub about this. He said he had two disagreements with McQueen the entire time they filmed the movie.
The first disagreement was when McQueen insisted on sporting a beard throughout the picture. Weintraub argued that no one would be able to recognize his million-dollar face, and McQueen finally shaved a week before principal photography.
The second disagreement evolved when McQueen insisted Horn die at the end. Weintraub knew it was going to impact the box-office gross and he was correct. In fact, he said it killed the picture’s chances.
Again, going back to when I was a 16-year-old in 1980 when I first saw Tom Horn, it shocked me when McQueen died on-screen. I’d been watching him my whole life and it was deeply disturbing to witness him being hanged. I recall leaving the movie theater feeling that I had been cinematically cheated, and that somehow McQueen would escape. I imagine millions of others felt the same way.
Why was Tom Horn a failure given that McQueen was a box-office superstar?
A couple of reasons. I think it partially had to do with the film’s downbeat ending. Again, no one ever expected McQueen to die at the end, even though he also died at the ending of Hell Is for Heroes, The War Lover, and The Sand Pebbles.
Another reason could have been that audiences hadn’t seen McQueen since 1974’s The Towering Inferno. A movie he filmed in late 1976, An Enemy of the People, had been shelved by Warner Brothers.
Back then, five years in between films was forever and this was an older and weather-beaten McQueen, not the golden screen idol of years before. Older audiences knew what they were getting, but younger film-goers probably didn’t know who he was.
Then there was the fact that Westerns had fallen out of favor in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Some made during this time period were The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Shootist, The White Buffalo, Comes a Horseman, Butch and Sundance: The Early Days, Heaven’s Gate, and Cattle Annie and Little Britches.
Only Clint Eastwood [The Outlaw Josey Wales] and Jane Fonda [Comes a Horseman] found success. It wasn’t until Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven that audiences seemed ready for Westerns again. Now they’re back in favor again in both television and film.
How much buzz was there leading up to the distribution of Tom Horn, considering McQueen had not been in a major release since 1974’s The Towering Inferno?
I remember seeing commercials for Tom Horn on television, and it being billed as “McQueen’s comeback.”
Did McQueen make any publicity appearances for Tom Horn besides attending the premiere?
No. I can’t even think of a magazine interview he did to promote Tom Horn. That simply wouldn’t happen today. McQueen felt as though his name was good enough and the public knew what they were getting. But the game has changed today. Studios would probably require him to do press junkets and a red carpet.
Do you blame that decision to rebuke publicity on the mesothelioma diagnosis or McQueen’s long held stubbornness / suspicion of the press?
The National Enquirer story came out in March 1980, the same month Tom Horn came out. McQueen showed up to the premiere to dispel the rumors, but didn’t answer questions from the press. When asked by a reporter if he had cancer, he replied, “Do I look like I have cancer?” He had it, tried to hide it, and this only fueled speculation.
Have you ever heard news of a potential Tom Horn remake? Does that prospect hold merit, or would it be misguided?
No, I’ve never heard of a remake and yes, the idea holds merit if it’s done the way McQueen had originally envisioned it — a story about Horn and his relationship with Geronimo. Is that a reality given that Westerns / period pieces are expensive to make? Most likely not. But if you get an actor in the prime of his career, one that can open a movie, there’s always an outside chance. I’d love to see it happen.
How does Tom Horn stack up nearly 40 years later?
It’s an interesting movie that showed McQueen’s acting was getting more layered as he grew older. Or as actor James Coburn once said, “He [McQueen] was loose and free and he wasn’t guarded. I always felt that Steve would really be a good actor if he ever grew up…I think he finally did on Tom Horn” [Author’s Note: Visit Dalton Watson Fine Books’ official page to purchase Steve McQueen: The Last Mile…Revisited and see even more photos from Minty’s extensive Tom Horn archive].
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