This writer considers a contemporary Western to generally be a film set after the start of World War One in 1914. The majority of Western films are set in what can be viewed as the “Old West” period – the years of US westward expansion between the close of the US Civil War in 1865 and the start of WWI. A contemporary Western remains based in the western region of North America and carries many of the Western character-types and ethics into a present-time with greater technological focus and reliance. The Electric Horseman (1979) is one such contemporary Western – westernsreboot has previously discussed this film and its richness invites a further look.

Set in 1979 (the year of its production), Robert Redford plays a former rodeo star named Sonny Steele. Steele has become a spokesperson for a corporation that uses his image to sell breakfast cereal. That image is literally “highlighted” at personal appearances with gaudy dress and an electric string of lights on both he and a horse that he rides. Prior to a promotional appearance in Las Vegas, Steele realizes that the horse he is slated to ride at that event– a champion thoroughbred named Rising Star – is being drugged to make him passive and that the drug is causing injury to the horse.

Robert Redford – Sonny Steele in The Electric Horseman (1979)

Steele connects to the plight of a champion horse being so demeaned for corporate profit – he has allowed himself to slide into alcohol abuse and to be dressed and used as seen fit by a multinational business. In a moment of resolve, he rides Rising Star away from the Las Vegas show with the eventual goal of releasing him to live in a canyon that is home to wild horses.

This film presents a number of important critiques of both corporations and modern media.  The corporation – the amorphously-named Ampco – fears that the loss of Rising Star and their handling of the issue could have a negative effect upon both a looming business merger and the value of their stock particularly if it becomes known that they had drugged the horse.

Jane Fonda plays Eastern-based television reporter, Hallie Martin, who locates Steele in hopes of an exclusive story. When she uses Steele’s friends to find him in the western countryside, Steele declares that she is just another typical reporter trying to use him and Rising Star to sell a story. There is a parallel between the corporation using his and the horse’s image to sell product and the media using Steele and Rising Star to sell a story, gain viewers and thus please their own advertisers.

In powerful exchange with Fonda’s character, Steele argues that “….you just want a story….any story…why don’t you make one up? That’s what y’all do anyway….” When Steele claims that he has retired from “public life”, Martin responds that he indeed is a story for having rode down the Las Vegas strip with someone else’s $12 million horse. Steele closes that conversation with the statement that “I’m nobody’s story but my own now.” Steele is seeking freedom from any manipulation of his personhood for monetary ends. This opens the larger question for all of us – to what degree will we compromise for money?

Martin and Steele will form a relationship as she doggedly follows him toward an eventual video report that will in turn create great public sympathy for his cause. Along that process there are moments that map out the very different lifestyles that each character leads – Steele cares not for the consumer shopping meccas and lifestyle of the East and he pokes fun at Martin’s knowledge of the West. Here is the trailer for the film:

Sydney Pollack directed The Electric Horseman – the film was made on location in Nevada, Utah and Zion National Park (near Springdale, Utah). The film’s soundtrack included several songs by Willie Nelson – who made his acting debut in the movie – that become major hits, including “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”, “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and Nelson’s cover of the Allman Brothers track, “Midnight Rider”.

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)


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