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The Electric Horseman

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The Electric Horseman
Theatrical release poster
Directed bySydney Pollack
Written by
Story byShelly Burton
Produced byRay Stark
CinematographyOwen Roizman
Edited bySheldon Kahn
Music byDave Grusin
Distributed by
Release date
  • December 21, 1979 (1979-12-21)
Running time
121 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$12.5 million[3]
Box office$61.8 million[2]

The Electric Horseman is a 1979 American western comedy-drama film starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda and directed by Sydney Pollack. The film is about a former rodeo champion who is hired by a cereal company to become its spokesperson and then runs away on a $12 million electric-lit horse and costume he is given to promote it in Las Vegas after he finds that the horse has been abused.



Former five time World Champion, Sonny Steele, has traded competition for advertising as the national spokesman for Ranch breakfast cereal and he tours the country in a jeweled cowboy costume, braided with flashing lights. However, his manager, Wendell, and assistant, Leroy, struggle to keep Sonny sober, and the global conglomerate, AMPCO Industries, who hired Sonny, is increasingly disappointed in his performance. In Las Vegas, Nevada, a television newscaster from New York City, named Hallie Martin, arrives for an AMPCO media event and is curious why the company discourages interviews with the cowboy. During rehearsals for the AMPCO variety show at Caesars Palace, Sonny notices that Rising Star, the $12 million champion racehorse he will be riding on stage and the company’s new corporate symbol, has been drugged with tranquilizers. He barges into the sales reception and complains to AMPCO's chairman, Hunt Sears, that the thoroughbred stallion is being exploited, but Sears reminds Sonny about his generous contract and walks away. When Sonny arrives backstage for his act that evening, he mounts Rising Star and goes on stage in the middle of a disco musical number as the director screams for him to stop. Tipping his hat to the audience, Sonny carefully rides the horse down the runway, out of the nightclub and through the casino. After trotting down the Las Vegas strip, Sonny and Rising Star gallop out of town. In the aftermath of the incident, AMPCO executives are desperate to locate Sonny before the press does, worried that the cowboy might raise concerns about the company's treatment of the horse, which could jeopardize an upcoming $300 million merger. At a press conference, they announce that Sonny is facing grand larceny charges.

Meanwhile, in the Nevada desert, Sonny borrows a camper van from his friend Gus Atwater and drives to Utah with Rising Star. Along the way, he begins to detoxify the stallion and treat the animal's swollen tendon. Back at the casino, Hallie investigates Sonny's whereabouts. After piecing together clues from Leroy and Wendell, Hallie tracks down Gus and cajoles him into revealing Sonny's location. Sonny is angry when Hallie finds his campsite, so he refuses to answer questions about why he took the horse. Before continuing on his way, he punctures the tires of her car. Unable to trail Sonny, Hallie returns to Las Vegas and reports on television that she found the rebel cowboy and the kidnapped horse, but keeps the location confidential, which frustrates AMPCO executives.

Driving into St. George, Utah, Sonny hears on the radio that a massive search is underway for Rising Star and he is annoyed that AMPCO accuses him of being an alcoholic who might not have the horse's best interests at heart. He telephones Hallie and says that if she can leave Las Vegas without being followed, he will give her a story. Arriving in a remote canyon with video equipment, Hallie records Sonny on camera as he reveals that the champion racehorse was pumped with drugs and put on stage with dancing girls, but has earned a better life. Following the interview, Sonny discloses to Hallie that he will turn Rising Star loose at a secret destination.

Based on information obtained earlier from Sonny's estranged wife, Hallie assumes that Sonny is taking Rising Star to Rim Rock Canyon, Utah. In a nearby town, Hallie telephones her producer and requests a camera crew at Rim Rock. When she notices an army of police cars on the streets, she arranges for a truck driver to deliver the videotape to a television affiliate in St. George and returns to warn Sonny. Scrambling into the camper, she insists she must accompany Sonny, or the authorities will force her to reveal all she knows. After arriving in town, Sonny orders Hallie to drive the camper to a lake near Cisco Falls, while he distracts the police and gallops away on Rising Star. Using his rodeo skills and the horse's speed, Sonny evades the police and by nightfall, meets Hallie at the lake.

Meanwhile, the videotape of Sonny is broadcast on television, and the public perceives him as a hero. Since authorities have been alerted to the camper, Sonny, Hallie and Rising Star leave it behind and begin walking. Along the way, they encounter a local farmer who admired Sonny's statement on television and offers to drive them to the next county in a tractor-trailer, foregoing the $50,000 reward for Sonny's capture. The farmer also provides rations as Sonny and Hallie continue on foot. During the isolated journey, the animosity between Sonny and Hallie dissipates, and they become lovers. Hallie is impressed by Sonny's knowledge of the outdoors and his integrity, and likewise, Sonny admires her street smarts and talents as a reporter.

Meanwhile, the AMPCO executives notice that Sonny's newfound popularity has boosted cereal sales, and they begin to reverse their position. Getting closer to their destination, Sonny and Hallie spend the night at an old hunting cabin, but Hallie appears anxious. She confesses to Sonny that she ordered television cameras to meet them at Rim Rock, but now regrets her actions. Despite the possibility that police might be there, Sonny will not change his plans. The following day, Sonny stops in a valley and announces that they have arrived, but Hallie is confused because she does not see the camera crew. Sonny explains that this location, where he always intended to set Rising Star free, is Silver Reef, not Rim Rock. Relieved, Hallie kisses Rising Star goodbye, and Sonny releases the stallion to join a herd of wild horses.

Meanwhile, AMPCO executives wait at Rim Rock with television reporters and a welcoming banner before realizing that they have been misinformed about his arrival. At a café in St. George, Hallie and Sonny enjoy a meal together, kiss goodbye and go their separate ways. Later, from the television studio in New York City, Hallie reports on her journey with Sonny and mentions that all charges against the cowboy have been dropped while the whereabouts of Rising Star are still unknown.







Casting for The Electric Horseman either continued or led to many reoccurring collaborations between cast and crew members. On November 28, 1978, Robert Redford was announced to star in the film,[4] becoming the fifth film in which Sydney Pollack directed Redford following This Property Is Condemned (1966), Jeremiah Johnson (1972), The Way We Were (1973) and Three Days of the Condor (1975). This director-actor relationship would continue with two more films: Out of Africa (1985) and Havana (1990). Pollack had also previously directed Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), whereas Redford and Fonda previously teamed on The Chase (1966) and Barefoot in the Park (1967).

The Electric Horseman is noted as being the debut acting performance of long-time country and western singer Willie Nelson, who plays the role of Wendell Hickson. According to Pollack, Nelson improvised most of his dialogue in the film. Pollack would later be executive producer for Nelson's 1980 starring vehicle Honeysuckle Rose. The film was also only the second film performance of character actor Wilford Brimley, who would later team with Redford in The Natural (1984).



"For Electric Horseman, I literally ended up writing half of every night before we would shoot. We make jokes now about my saying, 'Let's pick the longest location cause I have time to write the scene by the time we get there.' And that's literally true. There were yellow pads all over the place; we're writing out to work in the morning."

Sydney Pollack, describing script troubles.[5]

Principal photography for The Electric Horseman took place during late 1978 and early 1979 throughout Nevada and Utah. While the film was prominently shot on location in Las Vegas and Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area,[6][7] additional filming took place in various locations across the state of Utah, including Grafton, St. George, and Zion National Park.[8][9]

While filming generally went smoothly, Pollack struggled with revising the script while filming was underway.[5] In addition, there was one particular day in which production was continuously delayed due to traveling thunderstorms that interrupted the 20-second kissing scene between Redford and Fonda. Ultimately, the scene ended up requiring 48 takes that pushed costs to $280,000.[10] The film went over budget by $1.3 million, spending a total of $12.5 million.[3]



The musical score to The Electric Horseman was composed by Dave Grusin. In addition to co-starring, Willie Nelson contributed significantly to the film's soundtrack, singing five songs including "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys", "Midnight Rider," "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," "So You Think You're a Cowboy" and "Hands on the Wheel." Coinciding with the film's release, a soundtrack album was released featuring both Nelson's songs and Grusin's score.[11]

Release and reception


The Electric Horseman was released theatrically in the United States on December 21, 1979. Even with the budget escalating to $12.5 million,[3] the film was a box office success, becoming the eleventh highest grossing film of 1979[12] after grossing a domestic total of nearly $62 million.[2] While the film was co-produced by Columbia Pictures and Universal Pictures, and distributed by Columbia domestically and Universal internationally, the US film rights would later revert to Universal.[13] It has since been released on CED (Capacitance Electronic Disc) Videodiscs, VHS, Betamax, LaserDisc, DVD and Blu-ray by Universal Studios, although current home video releases have replaced "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" with a generic instrumental sound-alike recording in the opening title sequence. A 2019 North American Universal Blu-ray edition returns the music removed on many past video releases.

While the film was a commercial success, it received mixed reviews upon release. Film review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 64% of critics gave the film a positive review based on 22 reviews with a "Fresh" rating, with an average score of 5.83/10.[14] The film was also nominated for an Academy Award in 1980 for Best Sound (Arthur Piantadosi, Les Fresholtz, Michael Minkler and Al Overton Jr.).[15] Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune called the film "a nicely polished piece of entertainment from director Sydney Pollack, who regularly works with the biggest of stars and rarely lets his camera get in the way of those stars." Siskel, who gave the film three stars, highlighted what he detected to be genuine chemistry between Redford and Fonda. He also lauded the movie's "outstanding secondary cast," including Saxon, Coster and Nelson.[16] Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and called it "the kind of movie they used to make. It's an oddball love story about a guy and a girl and a prize racehorse, and it has a chase scene and some smooching and a happy ending. It could have starred Tracy and Hepburn, or Gable and Colbert, but it doesn't need to because this time it stars Robert Redford and Jane Fonda."[17]


  1. ^ a b "The Electric Horseman (1979)". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved 1 March 2021.
  2. ^ a b c "The Electric Horseman (1979)". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved January 28, 2012.
  3. ^ a b c Electric Horseman: A movie charges into the box office. Lawrence Journal-World, Bob Thomas (21 Dec 1979). Retrieved May 23, 2014.
  4. ^ "Redford joins cast". The Beaver County Times. United Press International. November 26, 1978. p. 16. Retrieved October 25, 2013.
  5. ^ a b Gallagher, John (Interviewer). The Director's Series (Videotape). New York City: TVDays.com. Event occurs at 0:11. Archived from the original on 2021-12-13. Retrieved October 25, 2013.
  6. ^ Katsilometes, John (December 14, 2006). "John Katsilometes gets Frank Gehry's succinct opinion of architecture in Las Vegas". Las Vegas Sun. The Greenspun Corporation. Retrieved October 25, 2013.
  7. ^ Block, Marcelline (2012). World Film Locations: Las Vegas. Intellect Ltd. p. 47. ISBN 978-1841505886.
  8. ^ Harmer, Katie (July 10, 2013). "50 movies filmed in Utah: 'The Sandlot,' 'Hulk' and more". Deseret News. Deseret News Publishing Company. Retrieved October 25, 2013.
  9. ^ D'Arc, James (2010). When Hollywood Came to Town: A History of Movie Making in Utah. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith. p. 110. ISBN 978-1423605874.
  10. ^ Schoell, William; Lawrence J. Quirk (2006). The Sundance Kid: A Biography of Robert Redford. Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing. p. 133. ISBN 1589792971.
  11. ^ "Willie Nelson / Dave Grusin – The Electric Horseman (Music From The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)". Discogs. December 1979. Retrieved October 25, 2013.
  12. ^ Top Grossing Films of 1979. Listal. Retrieved August 14, 2017.
  13. ^ "Company credits for The Electric Horseman". The Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 2007-09-15.
  14. ^ "The Electric Horseman – Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved October 25, 2013.
  15. ^ "The 52nd Academy Awards (1980) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-10-07.
  16. ^ Siskel, Gene (December 21, 1979). "Romancing of Redford and Fonda supplies the highest voltage in Pollack's 'Electric Horseman'". Chicago Tribune. p. C1.
  17. ^ "The Electric Horseman movie review (1979) | Roger Ebert".