Grade: B+
Rated PG

The Grey Fox is the kind of Western that holds some appeal for people who aren’t fans of the genre, because this independent Canadian film is about as far as you can get from the formula Western. Sure, there’s a little gunplay and a few robberies, but this 1982 film is a quiet Western, a character-based film—one that feels like a full-movie version of the “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” montage from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s a feature that feels every bit the indie film. There’s only the slightest bit of violence, sex, and language, with the focus on a grandfatherly figure that’s instantly sympathetic.

A number of revisionist Westerns—including Butch and Sundance, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Shootist, and The Wild Bunch—have embraced an elegiac tone and offered an aging hero who also stands as a symbol for the passing of a romantic Old West that’s now consigned to history. But The Grey Fox stands alone as a story that offers a character that’s stronger than the symbol he was meant to be. And it’s based on a true story, too.

Former stuntman Richard Farnsworth is compelling as the low-key, soft-spoken Bill Miner, who in Canada became as famous and oddly beloved by average people as Jesse James was south of the border. James robbed banks and Miner robbed the railroad—two institutions that were squeezing common people and were therefore resented. Miner was credited for first instructing people to put their “hands up,” and he became known as the Gentleman Bandit because of his politeness, gentility, and strict instructions that his men should never shoot or otherwise harm anyone. The Billy Miner Alehouse in Maple Ridge, British Columbiasd still celebrates this folk hero, not because he robbed from the rich to give to the poor, but because he only took from the hated Canadian Pacific Railway.

Writer John Hunter and director Phillip Borsos (who studied under Francis Ford Coppola) stay pretty close to the truthful parts of the Bill Miner story, choosing only to add their own bit of legend by giving Miner a low-key love interest (Jackie Burroughs) to match his personality—a strong, older woman who never married because she had other ambitions in life.

The film opens in 1901 with Miner being released from prison after serving 33 years for robbing stagecoaches. But after watching the silent movie The Great Train Robbery (1903), which was based on an actual event, he gets the idea to rob trains, since stagecoaches are a thing of the past. Why? Maybe it’s all he knows. Maybe he can’t tolerate the oyster bed job his sister lined up for him. Maybe he’s refusing to go gently into that good night. When a “respectable” man in town hires Miner and another man to steal for him, we’re still not sure of the gentleman’s motivations. For the most part Miner keeps his thoughts pretty much to himself, leaving viewers to read his face and interpret his actions. He has passions, but never articulates them. But there’s a matter-of-fact quality to what he does that’s totally in keeping with his personality, and his character is mesmerizing, the way a quiet, strong presence can dominate a room. You find yourself rooting for him, the way you root for any underdog.

The Grey Fox feels authentic, and maybe that’s because Borsos paid so much attention to detail. The film company was the only one ever allowed to film at the British Columbia heritage site Fort Steele, and it was filmed using railroad cars run by Canadian railroads. In fact, the capture scene was shot in the same vicinity where Miner was apprehended, and close-ups of his gun were the actual gun he used, borrowed from a collector.

Although the film wasn’t on the Oscar radar, it captured Best Picture and six other Genie Awards (Canada’s Oscars). The Western Writers of America named The Grey Fox its Spur Award winner for Best Movie Script and the film also earned Golden Globe nominations for Best Foreign Film and Best Actor—Drama. Critics loved the film. It has a 100 percent “fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes (compared to a 79 percent audience score), and the legendary Roger Ebert called it “a lovely adventure” en route to awarding it 3.5 stars out of 4. It’s a quirky drama that’s not overly or ostentatiously odd, and in indie style it’s leisurely paced and character and plot seem bound together. There’s action, but it’s all reined in by the personality of this fascinating older gentleman, with a charm that’s underscored by songs from The Chieftains.

Entire family: Yes, but realistically it’s for adults and older teens
Run time: 92 min. (Color)
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Amazon link
Rated PG for some violence and mild language and adult situations

Language: 3/10—Mild swearwords uttered by other characters

Sex: 1/10—One scene with two older people in bed, under covers, with the implication that they must have made love, plus some very polite pecks on the lips

Violence: 3/5—Very tame violence by today’s standards; several characters get shot, but that’s about it

Adult situations: 3/5—Some drinking and smoking

Takeaway: If your family likes indie films, The Grey Fox is a nice change of pace