The star had been a stunt man for most of his career, and an occasional bit player.
The rest of the cast was the very definition of “unheralded” at least in Hollywood.
The screenwriter is mostly forgotten, with no other credits of note.
The director was green and Canadian, with only a couple of shorts to his credit, and would only live long enough to make four more movies, none of highly regarded.
“The Grey Fox” is a 1982 indie Western that could easily be overwhelmed by its myth, the near miracle confluence of talent rising above its station and pure luck. But it’s so good, a minor classic in its timelessness, that it stands on its own, without any “little engine/movie that could” back story.
It’s grand in scope and intimate in feel, so beautifully shot and edited as to make you miss celluloid. And it’s been restored and is streaming on Kino Lorber Marquee (starting May 29) to support your local art cinema.
Richard Farnsworth has the title role, of “Gentleman Bandit” Bill Miner, a veteran hold-up man whose specialty was robbing stagecoaches. But that world had passed him by during a long sentence in prison. Getting out of San Quentin in 1901, he was a man pushing 60 and entering a changed world.
“A man of my age, the future doesn’t mean too much,” he says in a genteel drawl, “unless you’re talking about next week!”
He gets a sales pitch on “electrification” changing the world from a salesman he sits with on the train, marvels at the puttering “horseless carriages.” And after staying with his sister and considering his limited options, he ducks into a Far West moving picture show. “The Great Train Robbery” is playing — 12 minutes that made motion picture history, 12 minutes so jolting to the naifs who saw it that one fires his pistol in the storefront cinema where Bill sees it.
Bill kicks around oyster digging and sawmill jobs, until he decides on his new specialty.
“A professional always specializes.”
But he and his impromptu gang botch a holdup in Oregon. A lot of blood is shed.
And that’s how he winds up in British Columbia, meets his new sidekick Shorty (Wayne Robson) and makes his legend, the first hold-up man to use the phrase “Hand’s up!” and a robber so polite he cautions a railroad engineer “You be careful backing up, now” as he leaves and the railroad man has to re-couple cars in the dark, carriages Bill & Co. have disconnected.
Farnsworth would go on to lend his wry, sentimental twinkle to films like “The Natural,” “Misery” and most famously, “The Straight Story.” Here his easy going charm sells the romance he strikes up with the feminist labor agitator and photographer Kate (Jackie Burroughs) and his flinty Old West competence lends authority to defending himself from fellow ex-cons, handling a horse and even attempting something he’s never done as he’s coerced into horse stealing.
“Rustling isn’t my line.”
Borsos blends his scenes of rustic, Western Canada, the Kamloops, Monte Creek and Silverdale where Miner made his name, with grainy footage of silent Westerns, including “The Great Train Robbery.” This is a glorious effect, a real-life relic of that era pursuing his “line” in an age where people were looking back, with nostalgia, on such criminal exploits in the flickers — early cinemas.
The script takes ridiculous liberties with “the real story, but Borsos makes them feel real and Farnsworth lets us shrug that if this wasn’t the way it was, it sure as shooting is the way it should have been.
Cast: Richard Farnsworth, Jackie Burroughs, Wayne Robson, Ken Pogue, Gary Reineke and Timothy Webber
Credits: Directed by Philip Borsos, script by John Hunter. A Kino Lorber (streaming) release.
Running time: 1:30