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Comes a Horseman is a 1978 American western drama film starring Jane Fonda, James Caan, Jason Robards, and Richard Farnsworth, directed by Alan J. Pakula.

Comes a Horseman
Comes a horseman.jpg
Directed byAlan J. Pakula
Produced byGene Kirkwood
Dan Paulson
Written byDennis Lynton Clark
StarringJane Fonda
James Caan
Jason Robards
Richard Farnsworth
Music byMichael Small
CinematographyGordon Willis
Edited byMarion Rothman
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • October 25, 1978 (1978-10-25)
Running time
118 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$9,585,769

Set in the American West of the 1940s but not a typical Western, it tells the story of two ranchers (Caan and Fonda) whose small operation is threatened both by economic hardship and the expansionist dreams of a local land baron (Robards).

Farnsworth, a former stuntman, received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance. The film grossed $9.6 million at the box office.

A stuntman working on this film, Jim Sheppard, was killed while doing a scene where Robards' character is dragged to (presumably) his death. A horse dragging him veered from its course and caused Sheppard to hit his head on a fence post. The scene made it into the movie, although it is cut right before the horse passes through the gate where the fatal accident occurred.



It's the 1940's, near the end of World War II, in the American West. The setting is a large, fertile valley ideal for raising cattle. Rancher Jacob W. Ewing's (Jason Robards) family has lived in the valley for generations, and his dream is to control all of it and preserve it from those - farmers and oilmen, for example - who would use the land for other purposes. Visiting J.W. is wealthy New York oil executive Neil Atkinson, whose late father was J.W.'s good friend and financial backer; the Atkinsons helped J.W. buy out neighboring ranchers, taking advantage of their financial problems (often with some "persuasion" from J.W.'s henchmen). The one remaining holdout is Ella Connors (Jane Fonda), whose family has also ranched in the area for the last two generations and who relies on the family's aging but skillful cowhand, Dodger (Richard Farnsworth). Another small player is war veteran Frank Athearn (James Caan) to whom Ella has sold a small plot of land to pay her bills. Ella and J.W. have some personal history which Ella prefers to put behind her, but which J.W. keeps bringing up. Although J.W. believes that Ella cannot survive another season financially, Ella and Frank, both of whom are committed to making a living ranching, enter into an uneasy alliance, especially after a dangerous incident precipitated by J.W. involving Frank and Frank's partner, fellow veteran Billy Joe Meynart (Mark Harmon). Neil, meanwhile, wants to explore the entire valley for oil, and uses his family's financial support to pressure J.W. into agreeing. But Ella, Frank, and Neil soon discover that J.W. will go to any lengths to get what he wants.[1]



The film was based on an original script Comes a Horseman Wild and Free.[2] In January 1977 it was announced that Jane Fonda and James Caan would play the leads.[3]

"The theme of this film is very, very American," said Pakula.[4]

Stuntman Jim Shepperd was killed during filming on 18 August 1977, doubling for Jason Robards. He was being dragged behind a horse.[5]


Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and called it "a fine film—majestic at times—save for a slapdash ending."[6] A less enthusiastic review in Variety said the film was "so lethargic not even Jane Fonda, James Caan and Jason Robards can bring excitement to this artificially dramatic story of a stubborn rancher who won't surrender to the local land baron."[7] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote that the film "is not about the plot as such but about the way of life which the plot interrupts. The care and authenticity with which that way of life is recorded helps 'Comes a Horseman' overcome some real problems, notably a pace that is all too reverentially slow and a totally inadequate delineation of the Robards character."[8] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post stated, "Pakula and Clark may believe they revere Westerns, but their form of respectful imitation is lifeless, strictly token respect for the dead ... By the time 'Comes a Horseman' wheezes to an anticlimactic fadeout, Robards' depradations have begun to resemble Gothic camp."[9]

The film holds a score of 86% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 7 reviews.[10]


  1. ^ IMDb
  2. ^ MR. PAKULA GOES TO WASHINGTON Thompson, Richard. Film Comment; New York Vol. 12, Iss. 5, (Sep/Oct 1976): 12-19.
  3. ^ David Rudkin's 'Ashes' Moves To the Public Theater Jan. 25 New York Times 3 Jan 1977: 25.
  4. ^ At the Movies: The Man Who Made 'Klute' Directs Jane Fonda as a Rancher Flatley, Guy. New York Times 3 June 1977: 26.
  5. ^ Jim Sheppard, Stunt Man, Killed While Doubling in Robards Western New York Times 20 Aug 1977: 24.
  6. ^ Siskel, Gene (November 1, 1978). "Many magic moments in an upbeat 'Horseman'". Chicago Tribune. Section 5, p. 5.
  7. ^ "Film Reviews: Comes A Horseman". Variety. October 11, 1978. 31.
  8. ^ Champlin, Charles (October 22, 1978). "Celebration of the Beauty and Bounty of the Big Land". Los Angeles Times. Calendar, p. 35.
  9. ^ Arnold, Gary (October 25, 1978). "'Comes a Horseman' — Three Ranchers in Search of a Western". The Washington Post. D13.
  10. ^ "Comes a Horseman". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 5, 2019.

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