This week, Virtual Cinema takes us back to the Old West with “The Grey Fox” and “Thousand Pieces of Gold.” Houston-based film critic Joe Leydon reviewed both art-house westerns when they premiered, and he revisits them here.
They’re not your grandfather’s westerns. Indeed, when Philip Borsos’s The Grey Fox and Nancy Kelly’s Thousand Pieces of Gold kicked off their theatrical runs back in the day, they opened at Houston art houses instead of multiplexes, largely because of their respectful yet revisionist approach to what, even then, was viewed as a fading genre.
► The Grey Fox
The Grey Fox (1982) tips its Stetson to western traditions by casting Old Hollywood trouper Richard Farnsworth as Bill Miner, a real-life stagecoach bandit. After being released from a long San Quentin incarceration in 1901, Miner was inspired to make a slight career change after viewing a silent movie called The Great Train Robbery. What those actors did for fun, Miner figured, he could do for real.
Farnsworth spent nearly 50 years in what he called “the picture business” as a stunt man and bit player, often in westerns. In 1978, however, he was plucked out of obscurity when director Alan J. Pakula cast him as an aging saddletramp in Comes a Horseman. Farnsworth was nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for that film—and later won a Canadian Genie award as Best Actor for The Grey Fox.
► Thousand Pieces of Gold
Thousand Pieces of Gold (1990) wanders far from the mainstream by focusing on Lalu (Rosalind Chao), a young Chinese woman who’s pressed into servitude in an 1880 Idaho mining town and forced to work off the titular cost of her purchase: 1,000 pieces of gold. Refusing to be exploited, she transforms into a worker of indefatigable energy and endless resourcefulness. Lalu quickly earns the respect, and slowly wins the love, of the one white man in town who fully understands what it means to be a prisoner: Charlie (Chris Cooper), a taciturn Civil War veteran.
To find out more about this acclaimed drama, its charismatic lead actors, and the recent rerelease, check out the Q&A with director Nancy Kelly for Cowboys & Indians magazine.
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