The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans


The best screen Tom Horn – and the best Al Sieber


 
 
Alan Bridger, a follower of this blog,
read my plea about the TV movie Mr. Horn
and how difficult it was to obtain, and thanks to his great generosity and
kindness I have finally been able to view it. I am really glad I did because it
is very good, and a worthy addition to screen Tom Horns – and screen portrayals
of Al Sieber. In fact, judging by the first part anyway (it was a two-parter,
designed to fit in to a total of three hours with commercials) the movie could
just as well have been titled Mr. Sieber.
A grizzled Richard Widmark does an excellent job as Al and in the story of the Apache
wars it is he who dominates. Tom Horn (David Carradine, also first class) is Al’s
young apprentice.
 
A TV movie, but the best Tom Horn there is
 
The Warner Brothers Tom Horn of 1980 with Steve McQueen concentrates only on the last
part of Horn’s life, in Wyoming, and the trial for the murder of the lad Willie
Nickell. Mr. Horn, on the other hand
devotes about half the picture to the time in Arizona with Sieber and the other
half to the Wyoming saga. It misses out the whole middle part of Tom’s career,
as (allegedly) hired gun in the Pleasant Valley range war, as a Pinkerton man
and as a soldier in the Spanish-American War. Well, fair enough, they can’t do
everything. At least we get a good account of the Apache struggle and a good
showing for Al Sieber. That alone makes the film worth it.

Mr.
Horn
opens with some evocative paintings of Western
scenes by Petko Kadiev under the titles. The director is announced as Jack
Starrett. Big and burly Mr. Starrett (1936-89) was a former actor who made a
rep as director of low-budget drive-in movies and TV shows like Starsky & Hutch, The A-Team and The Dukes of Hazzard. Westernwise, he
had only directed one, the Jody McCrea oater Cry Blood, Apache (1970) which was poppa Joel McCrea’s penultimate
outing in the saddle, and I fear it wasn’t very good. So the omens weren’t all
that promising when Starrett’s name appeared on the screen. Never fear, though:
he does an excellent job on Mr. Horn.
The picture is thoughtful and well-paced, and also visually attractive with
Mexicali, Baja California locations standing in for 1880s Sonora and Arizona,
shot by Jorge Stahl Jr., who had worked on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Garden of Evil (the latter, especially, a photographically very classy
picture).
 
Jack Starrett
 
A limping Al Sieber, cantankerous and
worldly-wise, with Widmark at his growliest, is a civilian Army scout with a
low opinion of officers, whom he calls jackasses. Actually, although Sieber was
wounded in the leg at Gettysburg, there is no evidence that he hobbled as a
result in later life. He did limp after the Apache Kid incident in 1887, but
this picture even has him on crutches at one point. Never mind, it adds color.
Widmark plays Al with no German accent, probably a wise choice, though Sieber
never really mastered English and always spoke in a heavily accented way. Tom
Horn, though, is “the talking boy” who speaks Spanish and Apache fluently and
acts as interpreter.
 
Sorry about the pic quality but it’s the only image of Widmark as Sieber that I can find


Al Sieber after the Apache Kid incident


At one point Sieber asks Horn why no one
likes him. It’s a telling moment. Horn says that he doesn’t know, but no one
has ever liked him.

General Crook charges Al with bringing
in Geronimo, which Sieber says is impossible to do. Director Starrett himself
takes the role of Crook, and rather well, too. Crook was a great figure, with
his bushy beard and riding his favorite mule, and a fine soldier, very different
from the politically ambitious Nelson A Miles (Stafford Morgan) who replaces
him, and whom Sieber cannot stand (especially when, later, Miles fires all the
scouts, including Al and Tom). But first Sieber and Horn set out after Geronimo
with Al cheerfully listing all the Apache leaders he and the cavalry have
previously failed to capture.
 
General George Crook (1830 – 90)
 
Ambushes follow and mucho action, in
which Horn learns the hard way how to fight Indians. The expedition is led by
Capt. Emmet Crawford (Jeremy Slate) and Crawford too was a fascinating figure. He
was a Civil War hero who gained Western experience in the Sioux wars under
Crook in Montana and came south with the general when the 3rd Cavalry was
transferred to Arizona to deal with the Apache, where he was appointed military
commandant at San Carlos. He and Crook believed in using civilian scouts,
especially Apache ones, men who knew the land and knew the people, a policy
Miles was to reverse when he assumed command.
 
Capt. Emmet Crawford (1844 – 86)
 
In spring 1885 Crawford was sent out
after Geronimo and took Tom Horn and Apache scouts with him (though not Al
Sieber, as in Mr. Horn). In Mexico
his party was attacked by Mexican regulars and when Crawford waved a white
handkerchief and tried to negotiate he was shot in the head. An Apache scout
called Dutchy (it is Horn in the movie) dragged Crawford to safety but the
captain was mortally wounded and died later. Crawford’s second-in-command, Lt.
Maus, did arrange a meeting between Crook and Geronimo and the Apache chief
agreed to return to San Carlos but
in fact he did not return. Crook resigned over the incident and was
replaced by Miles.

Now relieved of their duties, Sieber and
Horn go prospecting (in fact Sieber was a lifelong, if unsuccessful miner) where
they are visited by Ernestina, the late Crawford’s sister (Karen Black), and
the movie invents a romance between her and Horn. This Ernestina says her
father and brother were both soldiers and both were killed. “All I want from a
man is that he outlive me,” she rather poignantly tells Tom. Then Horn and Sieber
are recalled when Miles’s campaign also fails. They must hunt Geronimo again. There
is another long pursuit, well handled by director and cast, in which Al is shot
again, making his bad leg now the good one, as he says. He is obliged to return
home.

The movie has Horn give his personal
word to Geronimo that if the Apaches surrender they will be allowed to remain
in Arizona, but once at Fort Bowie, Miles scorns this and exiles all the Apaches,
including the scouts who had helped track Geronimo, to Florida, with Sieber
raging at the injustice and Horn silently fuming. “I’m done being used,” he
mutters.

Geronimo is played by Enrique Lucero (who
was in both The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch) and he does rather
resemble the photographs of the older Apache (Geronimo was probably 56 at the
time).
 
The real Geronimo, Goyaałé (1829 – 1909)
 


OK, yes, this all does rather monkey
about with historical fact, but I don’t think we should blame the film for that
too much. These movies are dramas, not documentaries, and if the dramatic
tension requires it, why not alter history a bit? If you want the true facts,
read a history book, don’t watch a Western. And in my view the picture does
capture the spirit of Tom Horn and Al
Sieber, and rather well too.

One of the many fades-to-black that
indicate a TV movie is more consequential, and now we see an older Horn, duded
up in suit and tie and come north to Wyoming, and we see a horseless carriage
to denote that time has passed and modern times are here, reminding us of The Shootist or Peckinpah pictures like Ride the High Country, The Ballad of Cable Hogue and The Wild Bunch. In
Cheyenne, who is it the rather down-at-heel hotelier Tom comes across? Why, it’s
Ernestina Crawford, now a widow as she hastily informs him. And drinking in the
bar is a disillusioned George Crook. An even more elderly Al Sieber will soon
re-appear too, and be present at Horn’s trial and execution. There is, I fear,
no evidence for all these re-appearances (and in fact Crook had died a dozen years before) but they do provide useful dramatic
continuity.
 
Tom Horn (1860 – 1903)
 
Horn is hired by the rich cattlemen
under John Noble (Pat McCormick) who is presumably a reference to cattleman
John C Coble who would later jointly author Horn’s autobiography, to stop the rife
rustling. First Horn tries to do it legally but the courts immediately dismiss
the cases he brings against the rustlers and so he turns to the gun. Noble is
clear: though he will always deny hiring Horn as a bounty hunter, that is in
reality what the job is. Kill rustlers to dissuade others. Horn is no sham. He tells
how Buffalo Bill once asked him to join the Wild West and do his act. “My act?”
Horn replied, incredulously. “My act?
It ain’t an act!”

We see the death of the farm boy Willie
Nickell but we don’t see who made the shot. The scoundrel Joe LeFors (John
Durren) gets Tom drunk and then we see Tom arrested – we do not hear his ‘confession’.
The trial, illustrated by a Harper’s
Weekly
artist in a wheelchair, goes badly and one evening Ernestina brings
a steel file to Tom’s jail cell. She tells him that both the rustlers and the cattlemen
want him dead. Next day, LeFors tells the court of his conversation with Horn
which has been transcribed by a stenographer in the next room. An elderly Sieber
as a character witness is passionate but rambling and ineffective. Horn is
found guilty and sentenced to death.
 
Carradine as Horn
 
Horn escapes over the rooftops (rather
athletically, and it’s Carradine, not a double) but realizes it’s hopeless and
surrenders. The last scene is the hanging, with the cattlemen holding drinks
looking on in a satisfied way.

It’s all well done, and Carradine is
outstanding (he always was). In fact I would go so far as to say that Mr. Horn is the best screen Tom Horn
there is, and, much as I like John McIntire in Apache and Robert Duvall in Geronimo: An American Legend, it is also the best portrayal of Al Sieber. Do see it
if you get the chance.

Thanks, Alan Bridger. Any relation to
Jim?

Horn soon before his death

 

2 Responses

  1. Great to see you review this now little known epic scale TV movie.
    I thought Widmark was as good here as he has ever been in any Western.
    Carradine could have been one of the all time great Western stars but
    sadly it never worked out that way. Incredible second half,I thought.
    I don't know who now owns the rights to this-possibly Warner Brothers
    I think I'm going to request it on their Archive Facebook page.
    I'd love to see it get an "official" release.
    Yes Jeff, CRY BLOOD APACHE was pretty dismal but everyone's got to start somewhere. Another Starrett (non Western) on the missing list
    is THE GRAVY TRAIN with Stacy Keach,Fredric Forrest and Margot
    Kidder,in their prime,at the top of their game.

    1. Hi John
      I agree on Widmark and Carradine.
      It would certainly repay whoever holds the rights to release Mr. Horn on good-quality DVD.
      Don't know The Gravy Train but then it isn't a Western so I wouldn't…
      Thanks for your comment!
      Jeff

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