Tom Horn


This 1980 film is one of my favorite Westerns.  It stars Steve McQueen in the best role of his career.  McQueen spent four years putting the movie together as its Executive Director.


It tells the real life story of Tom Horn who was a Spanish American war veteran, a tracker and scout, an Indian fighter who captured Geronimo who he had great respect for, one of the last great cowboys who took on the role of “stock detective” in his final years.


The movie starts with those final years.  The opening voice over words are: “He grew up in the violence of the old West.”  He drifted into Wyoming in 1901 when cattle rustlers were making life miserable for the cattle barons.  They hired Tom Horn and he went out single handedly and stops the rustlers---mainly by killing them!  He is so efficient and does so effective a job he becomes an embarrassment to the rich cattlemen who have him framed and hung for one murder he didn’t commit.


Our early frontier was not glamorous---it was very violent, perhaps necessarily so---but people kept their word and were honest and direct for the most part.  But that form of violence, as represented by Tom Horn, was required only until those who came and took over and reaped the benefits that the earlier pioneers made possible moved into control. 


The message of the film is that the people who took over and controlled society were not good enough to shine the shoes of a Tom Horn.  They were small, petty and deceitful men.  They recognized that they were not his equals when it came time to hang him.  No one wanted to spring the trap on the gallows.  Therefore, an elaborate mechanism was created.  When Tom stepped on the trap it started water flowing into a bucket, which then when it filled up would spring the trap and hang him.  In a sense, it was Tom that hung himself.


So the messages of the film are:

  1. You can’t trust the people in charge any more. 
  2. The good old days were not all that good but at least you knew what to expect from someone.  Nowadays you don’t know who to trust.
  3. Life is about change.  If you don’t adapt, you die.