Electric Horseman, The (1979): Sydney Pollack’s Romantic Western, Reteaming Robert Redford and Jane Fonda

Decades after first appearing together on screen, in the 1967 comedy “Barefoot in the Park,” Robert Redford and Jane Fonda were reunited in this serio-comedy romantic Western, made by Sydney Pollack, Redford’s most frequent filmmaker.

Redford plays Sonny Steele, a cowboy-turned-huckster who unexpectedly finds true love as he tries to regain his self-esteem.

A one-time rodeo star whose career as a cowboy has grounded to a halt, he now makes a living as a spokesman for Ranch Breakfast, a sugar-coated cereal for kids.  As a result of his compromising career, Sonny has lost his self-respect—and sense of identity.

His boss, corporate mogul Hunt Sears (John Saxon), considers him a marketable property rather than a human being, which, among other problems, has made Sonny an alcoholic. When Sears’ cereal company negotiates a profitable merger with another firm, they bring Sonny to Las Vegas, the Mecca of crass materialism, for a publicity stunt.

Sonny, now reduced to wearing a garish cowboy outfit complete with blinking lights, is scheduled to ride on-stage at Caesar’s Palace aboard the prize-winning thoroughbred stallion Rising Star.

When Sonny discovers that Sears’ men have drugged the horse so that it will be able to walk on an injured leg, he’s appalled.  He decides to ride Rising Star off the stage at Caesar’s and into the Nevada desert, looking for grazing land where he and the horse can heal their wounds.

Sears, shockingly realizing that Sonny has run off with $12 million, is concerned that Sonny knows way too much about the wheeling and dealing, which will damage the firm’s reputation with the media, and threaten the potentially lucrative merger.

Sears files charges against Sonny and posts a reward for Rising Star’s safe return, suggesting that it’s no big deal  if Sonny dies in the rescue attempt.

Enters Hallie Martin, a TV journalist covering Sonny’s Vegas appearance. Suspicious that not all is right, she catches up with him in the desert.  As expected, while Hallie tries to get Sonny to tell her his story, the has-been cowboy and the city-girl reporter fall in love.

Redford and Fonda are charming, but they are way too good actors for such shlocky and predictable material.  I saw the film as a student at Columbia, and at the time, I felt that it would have been more compelling if Redford and Fonda made it a decade earlier, while they were in their 30s, rather than 40s.

Despite mixed reviews, the movie was popular with audiences. Made on a budget of $12 million, it earned over $60 million at the box-office, placing both actors on the list of top-grossing players.

“The Electric Horseman” signaled a new, productive phase in Jane Fonda’s career, which began with Coming Home (made a year later) and would continue with such films as “The China Syndrome” and “On Golden Pond.”

The secondary cast includes Valerie Perrine and Willie Nelson, the country singer and Western star in his screen debut.


Oscar Nominations: 1

Sound: Arthur Piantadosi, Les Fresholtz, Michael Minkler, Al Overton

Oscar Award: None


Oscar Context:

The winner of the Sound Oscar was “Apocalypse Now.”