Redford and Pollack explore the conflict between the values of individual freedom in a contemporary society dominated by greedy corporations in the modern Western The Electric Horseman (1979). This film represents a departure from the pessimistic Westerns that, since the 1960s, had lamented the end of an anachronistic way of life on the open range, from The Misfits (1961) to The Wild Bunch (1969). John Lenihan says that by 1963 Westerns “had begun to depict the modern urban civilization as empty and dehumanizing in contrast with the dying frontier world of the freedom-loving individualists. Cowboys, adventurers, and lawmen who once found fulfillment as self-sufficient individuals became forgotten anachronisms, as an institutionalized, confining urban order replaced the open frontier.” Pollack says he was tired of such guilty self-examination and wanted to make a fairy-tale Western with an optimistic ending, where the disillusioned cowboy, through the love for his horse, rediscovers his true self in the simplicity of nature. Redford worked closely with the director on this purposefully light-hearted film, before embarking in the socially committed Brubaker (1979) and his dramatic directorial debut, Ordinary People (1980).
In The Electric Horseman Redford plays a Sonny Steele, a former rodeo rider who has won the title of “All around world champion cowboy” five times in a row and has the broken bones, trophies, and brass belt buckles to prove it. A montage over the opening credits shows his past, and his current occupation as a walking advertisement for a cereal company. His image is on billboards and life-size cutouts, like the Marlboro Man; he has been promoted as a living symbol of the Wild West to sell Ranch Breakfast to the children of America.
Steele is a shadow of his former self. He’s a drunk, a womanizer, he falls off his horse, can’t remember his lines; he’s a man who’s lost, but doesn’t seem to know what’s wrong. He tells his old roadies, who now work for him, that their present life beats the rodeo circuit; now they drive around in a white Cadillac convertible, fly first class, stay in fancy hotels with room service: “We’re living like a bunch of oil barons.” It’s clear that Sonny Steele has sold out his integrity for money and it’s eating away at his conscience.
(To read more) Buy the book, Robert Redford and the American West.