The Grey Fox has become something of a white whale among Canadian cinephiles. Director Phillip Borsos’s biopic of legendary train robber Bill Miner was a homegrown smash upon its release in 1982, sweeping the Genie Awards and even racking up a couple of Golden Globe nominations south of the border. But past the VHS era, the movie all but disappeared, never receiving any sort of North American home media release, despite it being crowned by TIFF as one of Canada’s Top Ten Films Of All Time on two separate occasions.
But wouldn’t you know it, it’s a National Canadian Film Day miracle! On our country’s annual day of desperately trying to get people to recognize their film culture, a brand-spanking new 4K restoration of The Grey Fox is making its streaming debut as a Virtual Cinema presentation in support of a number of Canada’s premier repertory theatres (before hitting DVD and Blu-ray later this year via the fine folks at Kino Lorber). And boy, does it ever look gorgeous – each frame of British Columbia’s natural beauty more painterly than the last in telling the story of the celebrated outlaw known as “the Gentleman Bandit”.
Bill Miner (played by the incomparable Richard Farnsworth) may have been American, but his legend was wholly formed in this country, becoming a national folk hero for his polite demeanor during hold-ups and propensity to steal from the Canadian Pacific Railway, an organization with extremely low public favour at the time. The film chronicles this period of his life, starting with his release from a 30-year prison sentence at San Quentin in 1901, emerging into the twentieth century as a man well into his 50s. But that certainly doesn’t dull his passion for robberies.
Quickly realizing he’s not cut out for a normal job or way of life and feeling inspired by a screening of the 1903 silent-era classic The Great Train Robbery, Miner high-tails it to Canada, almost immediately pulling off a high-reward job in BC. Taking on the alias George Edwards, he then hides out in the small town of Kamloops, befriending the unsuspecting town sheriff (Timothy Webber) and eventually falling in love with a fiercely independent photographer (national treasure Jackie Burroughs). But just as he seems ready to settle down and enjoy his twilight years, an American Pinkerton agent arrives in town to sniff him out, turning the heat back on to perform one final heist and disappear for good.
Despite the occasional moment of CanCon corniness, The Grey Fox largely avoids stale Heritage Moment trappings by committing to an evocative atmosphere that puts it in the same category as many of the great American revisionist westerns of the era. The aforementioned stunning imagery was courtesy of cinematographer Frank Tidy, coming off of shooting Ridley Scott’s The Duellists a few years prior, and Irish supergroup The Chieftains contributed to the film’s peppy soundtrack, resulting in an audiovisual mood that has aged remarkably well. The hushed nighttime train hold-ups even bring to mind the hypnotic artistry of a more recent Western masterwork like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
The movie’s real ace-up-its-sleeve, however, is Richard Farnsworth. Known chiefly these days for his triumphant late-era performance in David Lynch’s The Straight Story, the legendary stuntman turned actor is the perfect embodiment of Miner’s legacy. Outwardly exuding a grandfatherly warmth while slyly keeping that mischievous glint in his eye, Farnsworth easily gives us one of the most lovable outlaws in Western film history. He also puts his stuntman experience to good use, especially in the film’s best action set piece, a thrilling white-knuckler involving a group of stolen horses on a precarious mountain ledge and an oncoming train. Yet he’s also endearing in the smaller moments, particularly showing wonderful chemistry in tender moments with love-interest Burroughs. And through her progressive and staunchly feminist character, the film surprisingly tackles and dispels some of the colonialist “Canada the good” mythmaking that we often mistakenly hold dear.
The Grey Fox was the debut feature from Phillip Borsos, who, at the impressive young age of 27, was hailed as the next great thing in Canadian cinema. Unfortunately, after the minor American studio hits of The Mean Season and One Magic Christmas, his career almost completely flatlined with the notoriously expensive and troubled Canadian-Chinese bomb, Bethune: The Making of a Hero. Sadly, he died a few years later from leukemia at the age of 41 but during his short career, there’s no doubt that he still made his mark on the film world both here and down south. So if you really want to do your patriotic duty on this day of celebrating Canadian film, this ticket is as hot as the loot Bill Miner made his living off of.
The Grey Fox begins streaming April 22 thanks to filmswelike in partnership with Film Movement’s Virtual Cinema in conjunction with six of Canada’s most notable repertory theatres, including Toronto’s Revue Cinema.