Editor’s note: This week, we start running movie reviews by local reviewer, Kirk Boxleitner. Kirk was a reviewer for the Port Townsend Leader for a number of years. We’re delighted to feature his reviews here on the Rainshadow Journal. Hope you enjoy them.
One might not expect a film about a veteran robber of stagecoaches and trains to be so gentle and pastoral.
But “The Grey Fox,” a 1982 film streaming at the Port Townsend Rose Theatre’s website, takes full advantage of the unspoiled nature of its outdoor shooting locations in Washington state and British Columbia.
The film also uses its brisk 92-minute running time to offer a leisurely, rounded character study of real-life outlaw Bill Miner, who reputedly remained unfailingly polite even in the midst of committing his crimes, and whose historic character is captured with effortless charm by soft-spoken actor Richard Farnsworth.
For those of us who feel cooped up by coronavirus restrictions, “The Grey Fox” offers no shortage of spectacular Pacific Northwest panoramas, now more vivid than ever thanks to Kino Lorber’s 4K restoration of its footage.
And while it limits its biography of Bill Miner to his later years, the film’s portrayal of him succeeds at conveying a sense of him as a full person, even with its relatively spare use of dialogue, thanks again in large part to the actions and facial expressions of Richard Farnsworth.
Although the film fudges the details of Miner’s prior incarcerations a bit, by establishing him as having served a prison term of 33 continuous years by the time he was released in 1901, it’s probably true that he spent more of those years behind bars than outside of them, due to his repeated re-arrests after each release.
But the film’s fictional revision is more effective for its story, since it makes Farnsworth’s Miner a man out of time, much like a turn-of-the-century Captain America, unfrozen from the ice just in time to behold the spectacles of homes hooked up to electrical lines, and silent movies such as “The Great Train Robbery.”
It’s at a screening of that silver-screen train robbery, punctuated by actual gunfire, that we see Miner’s face light up, as Farnsworth conveys how much the excitement of banditry remains in the old convict’s blood, and how ill-suited he is for oyster-farming while he lives with his sister in Washington.
It’s after Miner stages a few train robberies of his own, with decidedly mixed levels of success, that he and his partner in-crime “Shorty” Dunn (played by Wayne Robson) head up north to Canada, where Miner becomes a respected resident of a mining town, under the alias of George Edwards, earning himself both the friendship of the earnest young local lawman (Timothy Webber as Sgt. Fernie) and the love of a politically progressive feminist photographer (Jackie Burroughs as Katherine Flynn).
Farnsworth and Burroughs’ quiet chemistry manages to sell a love affair that would have been refreshingly modern by the standards of 1982, when the film was made, never mind the early 1900s, but it never strains credulity.
Of course, as is the tradition in such films, when Miner grudgingly agrees to commit what he thinks will be his last heist, it goes awry enough to threaten his idyllic life with the woman he loves.
I won’t spoil what happens next, inasmuch as one can spoil historical events dating back well more than a century, but having looked up what happened to the real-life Miner, after I finished this film, I was struck by the filmmakers’ fidelity to the historic accounts … up to a point.
Bottom line, if you have a soft spot for gentlemen gunslingers, understated romance or the great outdoors, you should stream “The Grey Fox” from the Rose Theatre’s site at RoseTheatre.com.