Sonny Steele (Robert Redford) used to be a rodeo cowboy, in fact he was one of the best in the United States, if not the best, which makes his more recent circumstances depressing, to say the least. Not that he is destitute, far from it, he is extremely well-paid for making personal appearances around the country advertising a breakfast cereal: all he has to do is show up, don a cowboy outfit that lights up, and ride out to meet his fans, all the while obediently plugging the product as ordered. But for all that monetary compensation, he is feeling this was not what he planned as a career when he started out, and has begun to hit the bottle - his sponsors are noticing, and one night replace him with a double. Nobody notices.
The Electric Horseman was Robert Redford's comeback movie after three years away from the world's movie screens, and you could see why director Sydney Pollack was able to coax him out of retirement when it offered the star the chance to show off the Utah locations he had made his home, and plenty of them. Indeed, after a while spent in Las Vegas the rest of the film more or less featured Redford looking dashing against the starkly striking landscape, obviously in his element and playing up the odd couple romance that it turned into, for this was another pairing with him and Jane Fonda, who took the role of Hallie, the television reporter who knows she is onto a good thing when she follows Sonny in pursuit of a story.
And that story was? Once it had been established that Sonny was deeply unhappy with his lot, we needed an escape route for the character, which was provided when another character turned up looking very emasculated by his part in the modern world, although in his case it was literal as the steroids he takes to lend him muscle tone and keep him docile have left him sterile. Who would do this to a human being? Well, Rising Star was not a person, he was a horse, and the film asked us to buy into the fantasy that a domestic steed could be set loose in the wild, leaving what amounted to a parable about the way we had lost sight of what was important in life by selling our souls to commerce and the trivia accompanying it.
That said, for a visual metaphor the horse was oddly lacking in character, as if the writers had had him summing up their themes and left it at that, so this was no Black Beauty yarn, and aside from the occasional scene Redford and Fonda might as well have been wandering the wilderness as a duo, though obviously if that had been the case this would have ended up a fugitive flick along the lines of the not dissimilar Kirk Douglas vehicle Lonely are the Brave, and this was more in touch with the natural world than it was a plea for the Old West to be remembered and learned from amidst the rules and regulations of the current day society. If there had been a few more shots of animals, then that connection to Mother Nature would have been even more pronounced; as it was, the horse and the countryside served that purpose. Even so, perhaps the best image Pollack dreamt up for this was the one of Redford atop Rising Star, all lit up like a Christmas tree in the dark of the Vegas night, one which was similarly punctuated by the vast array of neon signs.
Once Sonny leaves all that behind, he ditches his costume for a more traditional denim outfit, yet the scene where he and the horse are chased by the police, a burst of action in an otherwise contemplative and gently humorous affair, would have been visually more imaginative should our hero be careering across the roads and undergrowth with the lights blazing (although, er, a lot easier to pick out by the cops, granted). For the most part The Electric Horseman was really a romance as Sonny and Hallie got to know one another better in their journey that Hallie believes is a huge scoop and boost for her career, predictable yes, but the two stars had a nice rapport that was brought out with warmth and a twinkle in the eye. Still, as far as the nostalgia that was the overriding tone went, you pretty much had the idea that crass commercialism was bad (John Saxon was the boo-hiss advertising boss) and a natural life was good (Willie Nelson contributed songs to that end as well as appearing in his screen debut) within about two minutes of the beginning, and the film didn't change its tune at any stage thereafter. Nevertheless, as a variation on the Western for those wanting to relax into its possibilities, it was more than appealing. Music by Dave Grusin.