North of the Border: Canadian hero, American Outlaw.
The first images of The Grey Fox (Borsos 1982) are those of the early Hollywood Western. The screen flickers to life with a scene of masked gunman robbing a stagecoach. The jittered movement of the celluloid tracking mechanically, the intermittent rise and fall of the aperture, the fading tones and rigid movements awaken feelings of nostalgia.
Director Philip Borsos has reintroduced an audience to one of, if not the defining cinema genre and in doing so, framed his biographical film with an iconographical aesthetic and created a meta-historical authorship. This all sounds rather complicated but the beauty of a western, both visually and thematically, is its simplicity.
That is not to say The Grey Fox, or other westerns for that matter aren’t intelligent or detailed, far from it. But what a good western provides, as Borsos’ does, is an uncomplicated approach to storytelling that emphasizes a subject relative to every single member of the audience. Social change is what the western communicates honestly and simply. The characters can still maintain ambiguity, just as the protagonist in The Grey Fox does, and as the stagecoach, turned train-robber Bill Miner (Richard Farnsworth) is reintroduced to an industrialized, complex and morally equivocal world, an audience is also offered a chance to rediscover an ideology that often escapes them in the bright lights of commercial enterprise. Progress is man’s ability to complicate simplicity (Thor Heyerdahl).
The Grey Fox re-imagines the American Western in a Canadian light and identifies social change rather than spatial dominance. Had Miner appealed his situation in the United States of America, he would have been regarded as an enemy. The coach bandit turned train robber, an anti-socialist, and the reason why many believe the law exists; to keep criminals behind the bars (and legislations) that the law sets in concrete. But Canada, as presented by Borsos, houses a community that enjoys a social departure from conquering the Wild West. It is a country that embraces culture, be that due to its European occupancy, or a need to separate itself from a system of United States, nevertheless, Canada makes a home for Miner, who is himself cast under the spell of industrialization.
The famous Nickelodeon, The Great Train Robbery (Porter 1903) flickering brightly beneath the dirty flaps of a canvas tent, lights the weathered face of Miner with the glow of opportunity and stirs within him naive excitement, urging expressions of wonderment. He is inspired and re-invigorated by the enchanting effect of cinema. Farnsworth translates these emotions so naturally and genuinely, I was robbed of any stoic judgment concerning Miner’s criminal disposition and subsequently inspired by the affect the moving images were having on him. Whilst watching this scene, wipe the tear of joy from your eye and mouth the words ‘thank you’ to the man or woman who cast Farnsworth in this role. I struggle to think of an actor whose face can translate such honest and tender emotion and who so wholly defines the craft of acting, fitting his role like a soft, slightly creased leather glove. Subsequently and unconsciously, this emotional exchange between Miner and cinema highlights the importance of liberty and the independence cinema offers all it engages with and also emphasizes the dispositional power of the moving picture, reimagining, or in the case of The Grey Fox, reacquainting the audience with a world long since refurbished.
Trains replace the stagecoach to become Miner’s principle source of illegitimate income and the rails of industry lead him and an audience on a path of discovery in realizing the influence commerce has had on society, and adjusting to an accelerated lifestyle. Herein lies the foundation that supports Borsos’ geographical and national choices whilst making The Grey Fox. Miner’s criminal identity separates him directly from social order. Instead he becomes our vehicle to identify the effects industry had on British Columbia in 1904. As Miner is introduced to yet another modern wonder in a scene that acquaints him with the gramophone and consequently the articulate and charming photographer Kate Flynn (Jackie Burroughs), the film peels back a deeper layer from its protagonist and exposes his romantic and idealistic disposition. Canada, ‘a country in transition’ (Borsos 1982) as Flynn suggests, becomes not only Miner’s refuge, but also his expositor to the world that has changed so much during his imprisonment. Miner’s reentry into society transcends a message to his modern audience, accentuating industry’s push, and society’s subsequent surrender to the provision of iron and the allure of prosperity. The Canadian Pacific Railway ‘brings in ideas’ (Borsos 1982), as Kate would say, but not necessarily beneficial ideas concerning humanity.
The Grey Fox concludes much like it commenced; with scenes from a Hollywood past, only this time Borsos replaces stock studio footage with scenes from The Great Train Robbery, recalling the inspiration that spurred Miner’s lawless second wind. The time worn footage is intercut with Miner and his gang doing what they did best and it is at this moment when Miner, audience and motion picture are merged to re-emphasize the influential and progressive power of cinema.
Borsos, P 1982, The Grey Fox, Zoetrope Studios.
Porter E, S 1903, The Great Train Robbery, Edison Manufacturing Company.