Phillip Thompson

Crime Fiction writer

Few actors have ever done cool like Steve McQueen. And no, I don’t say that simply because he was a Marine (but it no doubt helped). He’s far more famous for his far more famous movies like Bullitt and The Great Escape, but I got a chance to watch my personal favorite today: Tom Horn.

Tom Horn was McQueen’s — to use Ginna Parson’s favorite word — penultimate film (hey, the woman can sure pick a word), and one of his finest performances, if you ask me. It’s the story of, well, Tom Horn, legendary cowboy, tracker, interpreter, hired gun (he was hell with a Winchester .45-60 rifle) and Geronimo catcher. Yes, there really was a Tom Horn and, yes, the movie fairly accurately portrays the latter part of his life.

Though Horn was a cowboy, and the movie takes place in Wyoming in 1901, I hesitate to call it a Western, even though it evokes Sam Peckinpah and Walter Hill. It’s really more of a character study than anything else. It just happens to look like a Western. And full disclosure up front: it’s not a happy story.

In 1901, Horn took a job as a hired gun for a cattle “association” in Wyoming, one that was having a huge problem with rustling. The association hired Horn to fix the problem, by “whatever means” he saw fit. Horn saw fit to shoot the rustlers. All of them. One at a time, if need be. This methodology, while enormously effective, did not sit well with the city folks, who in 1901 were far more city than cattle ranch. Tom’s methods eventually caused some consternation with the association, who set him up for the murder of a 14-year-old boy.

Like I said, not a happy story. The above really happened, more or less.

McQueen makes no apology for the kind of man Horn was: brutal but principled, honest but stubborn. And no actor has ever conveyed so much with the most common of gestures — a facial expression, picking up a cup of coffee, snapping a loaded shotgun shut. McQueen does it with such ease, such insouciance, that it’s easy to forget that you’re watching an actor. You are, in effect, watching the real Tom Horn. And while you may not understand his reasoning, you certainly understand where he’s coming from.

For you old-timers out there, the movie also stars Slim Pickens in a rare serious role and a gorgeously fresh-faced Linda Evans as the girl who steals Horn’s heart and attention (and understandably so).

Don’t forget: A Simple Murder, on sale now for 99 cents. Download it here.

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