Phillip Borsos’ The Grey Fox (1982) has long been unattainable. A Western of great humanity set in the astonishingly lovely Pacific Northwest of Washington State and Kamloops, BC, it’s a different kind of Western. It’s one that expresses perfectly the capability of Richard Farnsworth. The same way David Lynch’s remarkable The Straight Story (1999) gets exactly right the character of this under-appreciated actor, The Grey Fox lives inside Farnsworth’s amiable on-screen presence. In a stunning remaster from Kino Lorber Repertory, the 1982 picture is brought alive for modern audiences, with all the steam and precision of its great freight trains.
Farnsworth plays the historical figure Bill Miner. Known by the name of the Gentleman Bandit, Miner spent a good 33 years imprisoned for his work robbing stagecoaches. When he emerges from jail, on the cusp of a new century, the stagecoach has gone the way of the dodo. He returns to Washington State a new man until he sees his first picture show, The Great Train Robbery (1903), the famous shot of which is lovingly featured, then recreated, in his own adventures. It gives him the inkling that there are higher-stakes bounties in this new era. If he just meanders up north of the border, the British Columbia Railway could offer the sweetest reward.
The Grey Fox doubles its purpose as a great romantic film. It plays closely to Farnsworth’s great empathy here. He falls in love with early feminist Katherine Flynn (a perfect Jackie Burroughs). Beyond the wonderful staging of Canada’s first train robbery, is that of one of the country’s original outlaw romances. The romance plays just as well as its Western archetypes. There is a kind convergence between the way Miner robs trains and robs the heart of his sweetheart. He treats everyone equally, even his strange, dim partner, Shorty Dunn (Wayne Robson). Whatever the encounter, the picture dearly expresses the heart of its characters.
Swapping between Washington State and Kamloops, BC, The Grey Fox has the natural benefit of the most beautiful scenery on the continent. It gets winding mountain paths for the Northern Pacific train to roll through. Boros does as well at shooting a train as anyone ever has. The Grey Fox is alive in its natural setting. It’s the kind of Western steeped in the authentic atmosphere of its place. It feels like the Pacific Northwest, the spirit of the place emboldening its setting. Like McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), it’s not a dry old setting, but a lush setting with dampness and the possibility of new life. It prefers greenery and the rain to the usual dust-chocked setting, and benefits greatly.
The Grey Fox is one of the great forgotten Westerns. This reissuing presents an opportune moment to champion a critically beloved but publicly forgotten near-masterpiece of the Northwest. From the moment Bill Miner sees The Great Train Robbery, his life is cemented as one destined for the pictures. This restoration gives him yet another lease on life, a return to one of Canada’s greatest Westerns (if not its greatest). As in life, Bill Miner could not be contained and must receive a second lease on life.