(NOTE: This is a reposting of an article I published on Tumblr, a year ago Thursday.)
What I knew about THE HORSEMEN, before I knew anything else about it, was that it was about buzkashi, the Central Asian sport wherein the headless body of a calf must be borne by a man on a horseback to a goal-spot of some kind. What I realized upon watching the film was that the buzkashi was only the beginning of the story.
Don’t overplay your hand there, Sports Illustrated
The story in brief: Uraz (Omar Sharif) is the son of Tursen (Jack Palance), a local chieftain. Tursen selects a group of his men, and Uraz, to compete in a royal buzkashi in Kabul. Uraz is to use Taheel (sp?), a magnificent white horse which Tursen has trained—just like he trained Taheel’s ancestors. Uraz competes in the royal buzkashi, and it proves to be a tough battle, but Uraz holds his own—until he falls from Taheel and breaks his leg.
With the help of his servant Mukhi (David de Keyser), Uraz escapes from the hospital, and they begin to make their way home. Stopping to rest, Uraz overhears a man recounting how the old buzkashis were better, and he flashes back to his youth, when he was merely an adjunct to Tursen’s triumph. Impulsively, Uraz demands that he and Mukhi take a dangerous mountain path rather than the simpler path recommended to them.
On the way, Uraz decides to have a document drawn up (by a blind scribe, no less) leaving Taheel to Mukhi if he should die; shortly thereafter, they encounter and are helped by a young nomad woman, Zareh (Leigh Taylor-Young). For one reason or another, Uraz considers her untouchable, and she instead begins to influence Mukhi. Tensions rise as the journey progresses and Uraz grows sicker.
Not gonna lie, that’s a pretty legit tagline. More legit than the film, even
That’s not even the entire story; there are other subplots and ideas that pop up here and there, and not always as smoothly as one might like; at 105 minutes, THE HORSEMEN is actually fairly short for what seems to have at least begun as a major epic; according to the IMDb, the film began shooting in 70mm, but a management change at Columbia resulted in a switchover to 35mm (the film was shown in 70mm blow-up prints, however).
MACKENNA’S GOLD, another Columbia film from this era (coincidentally also starring Omar Sharif), met a similar fate, and was reputedly originally meant to be a 3-hour roadshow release before being cut to just over 2 hours for its release; might THE HORSEMEN originally have been intended to be longer? It certainly wouldn’t shock me. The plot is often rather choppy, with Uraz finding himself somewhere and being told that he came there in a delirium at least twice; the last act of the film also feels somewhat mis-shapen, and the final scene in particular seems to come out of nowhere.
How much of this remains? Also, nice cover
Even if one overlooks the jumpy narrative, THE HORSEMEN still comes up short in the story department. Dalton Trumbo’s script is not one of his better works, with dialogue that tends to be purple or heavy-handed. And the characters are problematic, too; Uraz comes off as arrogant and humorless, and treats Zareh horribly—while Zareh goes from helpful and sympathetic to conniving all too easily (she and Uraz have a remarkably superfluous love scene, long after it would make any narrative sense). Tursen has some interesting qualities, and in scenes where he tries to recapture his past glories or recognizes how the foolhardiness that marks Uraz marks him as well, we see glimmers of what might have been.
The acting helps somewhat, although no one gives their best work. Sharif plays Uraz, for the most part, at the same grim, determined pitch; we never see the wit or empathy that made his Prince Ali such a memorable character. He’s a good enough actor that, despite the limitations of the role, he still holds our attention, but we never really like Uraz, and he’s not well-drawn enough as an anti-hero to make up for that. Palance, on the other hand, more or less steals the show as Tursen; he underplays the role rather nicely, and his fatherly affection and sense of fading machismo come off properly.
Leigh Taylor-Young is okay as Zareh; as with most of the cast, she wasn’t given much help by the script, but she has a little fire that carries her through. David de Keyser is forgettable as Mukhi (he appears to have been dubbed); no one else in the cast really stands out or has that much to do, aside from the man who bets against Uraz early on, wins, then helps him out later by providing the champion for a goat-fight. Can’t remember his name (and the relative obscurity of the film makes resolving these issues rather tricky), but he was cool.
As a big-budget studio production (filmed in Afghanistan and Spain), THE HORSEMEN is pretty effective from a technical standpoint. Claude Renoir’s cinematography encompasses some fine vistas and manages some nice shots (though I must admit I saw it via a crappy YouTube upload that seemed overly compressed); the costumes and especially the makeup look very good as well. Georges Delerue’s score helps as well, though none of the themes really stuck with me.
The Polish poster. Trippy, no?
Frankenheimer doesn’t really distinguish himself, though: there’s not much of the imagination or tension that he brought to THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE or SECONDS, and if the buzkashi scenes aren’t a disgrace when compared to the Formula One races of his own GRAND PRIX or the skydiving stunts of his THE GYPSY MOTHS, they’re used too sparingly to really enhance the film. There are some interesting scenes throughout, like the one where Uraz has Mukhi remove the plaster cast on his leg, wrap the wound in a page of the Quran (!), and bind it, and others where the contrast between the traditional lifestyle of the tribesmen and the slowly encroaching outside world is highlighted. But they too fail to really make the film work.
In the end, a lot of the blame rests on the script, but I suspect studio interference and re-cutting only made the problem worse. There’s enough going on here to make THE HORSEMEN an interesting film; not a must-see by any means, but a decent curiosity item. And that’s where my story comes in.
I had been trying to see THE HORSEMEN for quite some time, without success. The DVD appears to be out of print, although I just found it for $5 and $3 on eBay (not sure if I’ll get it or not), and attempts to find a used or rental copy were fruitless. Luckily I found it on YouTube (here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxgbWUIVpT4), though the quality was not terribly high. Was it the relative rarity of the film that drove me? The fact that it was a 70mm epic? The fact that it was the only mainstream American film I knew of that involved buzkashi? Or was it because it was Frankenheimer film? Probably a bit of all of these, but it was the rarity that really got my attention; my other two “Top Three Must-See” films (THE GROUNDSTAR CONSPIRACY and AN UNMARRIED WOMAN) are also out-of-print—the former especially—and command high prices when they can be found at all.
Was it worth it? Since I got to see it for free in the end, I’ll say yes. And despite my issues with it, it’s still an interesting and unique film. For those interested in Afghan culture, buzkashi, Frankenheimer, or Sharif, I’d say it’s worth it. For the casual viewer, though, you can take it or leave it.