In his most personal directorial effort, The Horse Whisperer (1998), Robert Redford also stars as a modern cowboy living on his family ranch with his brother, his brother’s wife and their three boys, tending a herd of cattle and riding horses in the expansive western landscape of Montana. This film perfectly illustrates Redford’s lifelong attachment to the West and the cowboy lifestyle that has been a defining element of the American character. Michael Coyne describes this phenomenon: “For the United States, the Western film and the national identity have been inextricably linked. The cowboy has been recognized world-wide as one of the most potent and enduring symbols of America.”
Redford had been unwilling to act in the movies he directed, preferring to cast look-alike younger protagonists, like Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It and later Matt Damon in The Legend of Bagger Vance; but he decided to play the title character in this particular case, because he felt a special kinship with material that was close to his heart. “I felt it would be comfortable to play Tom Booker because I understood a lot about him. He is appealing because of what he does, how he does it and what he stands for in his own particular life ethic. He was an absolute product of the land and the West. I felt I could bring a lot of my own experience to that character.”
It is significant that, when Redford decided to revisit his youthful cowboy image in his later years, he chose to portray a mature cowboy who does not engage in the juvenile sport of rodeo-riding or in violent gunfights. Tom Booker is instead a centered and thoughtful rancher who’s comfortable with himself and has found his place in the world, on the saddle of a horse raising cattle in Montana country. He also has a God-given gift that he was born with: he can talk to horses. When the career woman (Kristin Scott-Thomas) says, “I read this article about what you do for people with horse problems,” Tom answers, “The truth is I help horses with people problems.”
(To read more) Buy the book, Robert Redford and the American West.