The Grey Fox

Director: Phillip Borsos
Screenplay: John Hunter
Stars: Richard Farnsworth (Bill Miner), Jackie Burroughs (Kate), Ken Pogue (Jack Budd), Wayne Robson (Shorty Dunn), Timothy Webber (Sergeant Fernie), Gary Reineke (Detective Seavey), David Petersen (Louis Colquhoun), Don MacKay (Al Sims), Samantha Langevin (Jenny), Tom Heaton (Tom)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1982
Country: Canada
The Grey Fox
The Grey Fox

The Grey Fox, which tells the true story of American stagecoach-turned-train robber Bill Miner, has long been one of Canada’s most celebrated films. Shot against the soaring backdrop of British Columbia by cinematographer Frank Tidy, who had previously shot Ridley Scott’s similarly gorgeous period piece The Duellists (1977), The Grey Fox is a painterly marvel, the kind of film that presents visual poetry in a way that feels utterly natural, rather than compulsorily “artistic.” Many of its shots reminded me of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), a similarly visually poetic film about an outlaw on the run (and, even though it ostensibly takes place in West Texas, it was also shot in Canada).

Richard Farnsworth, who had spent decades in Hollywood as a stuntman and trick horse rider before turning to acting in the 1960s, plays Bill Miner, a stagecoach robber who was incarcerated in San Quentin in 1863. Farnsworth, with his genial air, almost comically brushy moustache, and bright blue eyes that evince both decency and sharp intellect, feels like he was created specifically for the role of Miner, who was nicknamed “the Gentleman Bandit” and who is largely credited with inventing the phrase “Hands up!”

Released in 1901, Miner steps into the 20th century and finds himself incapable of leaving his old ways behind even though the world has changed dramatically during his 33 years behind bars. After seeing Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903)—which to our eyes now looks like a classic western, but at the time was a contemporary crime thriller—Miner is inspired to rob trains. He puts together a gang and successfully robs one in Washington state, after which he escapes to Canada. There, he partners with Shorty Dunn (Wayne Robson), a not-too-bright, but amiable man he meets while doing factory work. Forced to lay low for a while, Miner and Shorty hide out in Tulameen, a small mining town along the edge of the Canadian Cascades. The local hotel is run by Jack Budd (Ken Pouge), a former associate of Miner’s who is willing to help him and Shorty as long as they work a mine he has recently acquired. While there, Miner develops a relationship with both Sergeant Fernie (Timothy Webber), the local lawman who is young and honest and therefore easily deceived by Miner’s alias, and Katherine Flynn (Jackie Burroughs), a feminist photographer from the East whose eye for beauty and tenacity captures Miner’s attention, just as his rugged honesty and decency and open ear catches hers.

Written by John Hunter (Blood & Guts, Cross Country) and directed by Phillip Borsos (The Mean Season), who grew up near the site of one of Miner’s most famous train robberies and who was making his directorial debut after several documentary shorts, The Grey Fox is a close character study that is compelling and engaging without ever feeling rushed. It has a slightly languid air, but it never drags (it is, in many ways, a great example of narrative economy). The landscape is its own major character, but it never dwarfs Miner and his exploits, particularly the relationships he builds that are always fraught with tension because they rely on his hiding his true identity. Farnsworth is quite brilliant in playing Miner as a fundamentally decent man who just happens to rob for a living. The film makes a clear distinction between Miner and other criminals who are vulgar, violent, and uncouth, particularly a former San Quentin prisoner he meets in a bar who tries to strongarm him into joining a new gang. Miner demonstrates in no uncertain terms that he is not a man to underestimate, however kindly and gentlemanly his airs may be.

Farnsworth, who had recently been nominated for an Oscar for his role as a ranch hand in Alan J. Pakula’s modern Western Comes a Horseman (1978), plays Miner as a man of great pride who nevertheless remains humble in his interactions with others; you can always sense him thinking ahead of those around him, plotting and planning, but Farnsworth also give him an edge of vulnerability and a hint of sadness that wells from a life that has been spent largely alone and on the run. Miner is a leftover antihero of an earlier age, and he holds the center of this beautifully modulated film as it balances suspenseful train robberies with elegiac landscapes and tender love scenes.

(The Grey Fox has been given a 4K restoration and is playing as part of Kino Marquee, a new initiative that creates “virtual cinemas” for temporarily closed independent theaters.)

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Overall Rating: (3.5)

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