I have always been drawn to films based on the life and events of legendary figures from America’s Wild West, with the likes of Wyatt Earp, Josey Wales, and Jesse James standing out…who all happened to be outlaws. It can go without saying that respective film adaptations of these figures primarily focused on their most active times as relatively youthful outlaws, which, intriguingly, is what separates Philip Borsos’ 1982 film The Grey Fox depiction of Bill Miner from other portrayals of legends from the West.
Miner was an American stage coach robber who is believed to be the potential originator of the phrase “Hands up!”, and while a great many filmmakers would have focused on this period of his life (even just for him to say the phrase he reportedly coined), screenwriter John Hunter resists the urge. Hunter instead focuses, to great effect, on Miner’s life subsequent to being released from San Quentin in 1901 following a 33 year prison sentence. In fact, the first shot we are afforded of an aged Miner is him stepping from his cell, smiling at the light of freedom as it cascades upon his face.
Miner was also known as the Gentleman Bandit, due to numerous reports of his courteousness when committing robberies. He had even become a folk hero of sorts, robbing only from those with greater means than his own. Meanwhile, his decision to move on to robbing trains effectually depicts Miner as a man unable to escape his compulsion for masterminding criminal escapades, even after three decades in prison.
All of this creates a level of depth from which the talented Richard Farnsworth can draw, resulting in a naturally dynamic performance that is essential to driving the film’s character elements. Farnsworth can shift from being naturally likeable and genuine, to manipulative, assertive, and almost dangerous when the situation requires it. Ultimately, it is the complicated depiction of a man who, in one scene, seems to be grounded by a set of values and etiquette, only to be threateningly pointing a pistol in another man’s face in the next.
Miner eventually begins a relationship with Kate (Jackie Burroughs), a resident of the British Colombian town in which he is hiding from the law. This adds credence to Miner’s character development throughout, thanks in no small part to the chemistry between the rustic Farnsworth playing well off the more refined Burroughs. Just as vital is Borsos’ direction and effective use of montage to complement the film’s pacing.
The Grey Fox is an effective character study with some wonderful performances and occasionally captivating cinematography. When all is said and done though, it would not quite be a period piece without some commentary on social issues of the time, especially ones that existed at the time of the film’s release…and still exist today. Kate is not only there as a love interest for Miner, but also as a feminist, being the bearer of some of the film’s strongest commentary. Kate argues for equal pay with a clerk, and explains the racial and social imbalances of the time to Miner. These issues are all the more resounding today (especially in the film industry), which is a commendable mark of craftsmanship for Hunter’s timely screenplay, and a sobering indication of not just how far we have come as a people, but also how short we have fallen.
Image Courtesy of MrSickboy50