The Grey Fox: The Old Man & the North, by David Bax
Bill Miner was a real life stagecoach robber (reported to have coined the phrase, “Hands up!”) who turned to robbing trains after being released from prison into a stagecoach-free twentieth century. Phillip Borsos’ 1982 biopic, The Grey Fox (a new restoration of which is coming to virtual cinemas this week from Kino Marquee) focuses on Miner’s years in British Columbia just after the turn of century. Borsos and screenwriter John Hunter fudge the facts a bit but, in doing so, they give Miner a dignified and triumphant final act more fitting to his status as a Canadian folk hero.
As played by Richard Farnsworth, Miner is an immediately likable and sympathetic fellow, even though he’s a criminal who just got out of prison and even though we know–before he does–that his post-release attempt to go straight is going to fail. His soft, kind, intelligent eyes make it thoroughly believable that a independent, early feminist like photographer Kate Flynn (Jackie Burroughs) might take a quick liking to him when he arrives in her small Canadian town. Unbeknownst to her, he’s there because he’s fleeing authorities after robbing a train in Washington state.
It’s hard to imagine that David Lowery wasn’t influenced by The Grey Fox when he made 2018’s The Old Man & the Gun. Both films are true-ish stories about irascible, old charmers who fall in love during a futile attempt to give up their lives of crime. Farnsworth even gives Robert Redford a run for his money in the charisma department.
Of course, The Grey Fox has influences of its own, too. It’s not just Kate to whom Miner (under an assumed name) ingratiates himself. The entire town and community of Kamloops (a real place, funny name and all, that’s now the seventh most populous city in British Columbia) come to view him as one of their own. Miner’s not exactly Jean Valjean but this part of his journey is a comparable one.
Though he was born and spent nearly his entire life in America, Miner’s reputation–his legacy–was made and lives on in Canada. And The Grey Fox is undoubtedly a Canadian film, not just in its financing and production but in its airy spaciousness and its quiet modesty, the latter perhaps inspired by the famously polite Miner himself. In look and feel, it’s less a Western than a Northern.
Borsos uses this room to let the movie breathe and to give Hunter’s words and Farnsworth’s performance the space to gently expand. The dialogue ranges from drolly blunt (“I robbed stagecoaches” is as succinct yet encompassing a line as, “We rob banks”) to painterly and colorful (“I’m just not cut out for work that’s planned by other hands”). With Farnsworth’s delicate, quavering voice like a musical saw, it sounds as beautiful as The Grey Fox‘s Canada looks.