The re-release of Phillip Borsos’ The Grey Fox is cause for celebration. Initially finding its way to theaters in 1982, the film was stuck in distribution purgatory for years before finally, this year, receiving a gorgeous 4K digital restoration courtesy of Films We Like and Kino Lorber Repertory. Its stellar reputation, however, precedes this rediscovery. It received six prestigious Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture, in 1983, and it also appeared in two versions of the Toronto International Film Festival’s list of the best Canadian films of all time. This long overdue re-release should garner new appreciation for Borsos’ melancholy western, which is both grand in scale and microscopically detailed, down to fresh-packed dirt roads and the sawdust scent of ghost towns-to-be.

Based on a true story, The Grey Fox tracks the 1901 release of white-mustached stagecoach swindler Bill Miner (stuntman-turned-acting-legend Richard Farnsworth) from San Quentin State Prison. Miner first wanders up towards the homestead of his sister and her husband in Washington State, but it’s readily apparent that he won’t fit in there. The husband, for one, doesn’t have a high opinion of ex-convicts, and Miner’s aging body isn’t exactly a great fit for the backbreaking labor of oyster picking.

So it comes as little surprise when Miner is prompted by a raucous screening of The Great Train Robbery to return to his life of crime, this time holding up trains. This early film screening, which whirs kinetically with the sound of the projector and an exhausting live piano score, allows The Grey Fox to highlight both the elemental power of cinema and the changing times. The turn-of-the-century setting and canonical movie choice (anachronistically placed two years before its 1903 debut) are a little on the nose, but we still feel for Miner and sense his longing for anti-establishment intrigue.

What follows, as he gets to work robbing locomotives and fleeing from the law to the small Canadian town of Kamloops, is less about action and more about Miner’s distinctive blend of roiling toughness and quiet sensitivity. One moment he violently breaks a bottle over the head of a would-be bank robber; but at another he stops enthralled to take in an opera; the production echoing out with the help of another relatively new technology, the phonograph, this leads to a romance with local feminist photographer Kate (Jackie Burroughs). There’s a fantastical element to the progressiveness of their fast-blossoming relationship—Miner glows with sympathetic iridescence, and Kate is nothing but intrigued by this open-minded rascal—but that’s part of the film’s unabashed sentimentality, and why balk at a portrayal of history that pushes against the grain of progress narratives? The forward march of time abandons all kinds of delightful people, each representing a path not taken.

The Grey Fox excels in the art of portraiture, whereby brief glimpses of minor characters allow us to gather a whole host of details about their lives. This is true for the sister’s brother and Kate, as well as local lawman Sergeant Fernie (Timothy Webber), authoritative yet kind, and Miner’s main partner, Shorty Dunn (Wayne Robson), excitable and easily fooled. Borsos and screenwriter John Hunter refuse to cast these individuals as simple helpers or foils. Rather, they are imbued with a sense of being that transcends the narrative, and we can imagine them scraping by on the frontier of the American and Canadian West long after the movie’s conclusion.

That majestic frontier is a character in itself, captured in glorious purple, blue and white by cinematographer Frank Tidy, who also shot Ridley Scott’s feature-length debut (The Duellists). Snow-capped mountains tower over Miner and company, who relax among the sights when they’re not caught in a downpour or rustling wild horses. The overall sense is of an environment both imposing and delightful, as well as of a grandeur that lends perspective to Miner’s humble ambitions. Farnsworth’s wide, engaging blue eyes are just as majestic as his surroundings, but we get a sense that he’s too caught up in a life of crime and his hope for achieving urban sophistication to fully recognize either his own beauty or the sublimity of what’s around him.

The Grey Fox is a dazzling portrayal of restless masculinity in the Old West. It represents what’s commonly understood as a disappearing tradition of epic-scale, independent-minded filmmaking: think Coppola (who mentored Borsos), Scorsese, Herzog. But Miner’s complicated path between peaks of energizing criminal success and valleys of imprisonment and frustration is a reminder that such a tradition has always been one of failures and triumphs, of stops and starts. The long-anticipated restoration of this movie arrives, like a train rolling through a forested mountain pass, as one of those triumphs, an encouraging sign that return, revision and revival remain distinct possibilities.

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