Starring: Richard Farnsworth, Jackie Burroughs, Wayne Robson, Ken Pogue
Director: Phillip Borsos
Mood: If you’re feeling like humankind is kind of the worst and desperately need to be cheered up by the story of a charming Canadian folk hero.
The Grey Fox is some truly great Canadian content.
It was nominated for FIFTEEN Genie awards (now called the Canadian Screen Awards, aka our knockoff of a certain other gold statue). It won seven of those categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Foreign Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, and Best Musical Score.
Richard Farnsworth was further nominated for a Golden Globe. The Toronto International Film Festival included The Grey Fox on its list of the top 10 Canadian Films of all time two decades in a row (although it didn’t make the last cut – rude). It even has a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
I tell you all of this because you probably need as much convincing as I did to watch a Canadian movie, and that’s totally fair. I don’t seek out Canadian movies either – and especially not Canadian Westerns. The last ones I reviewed were Stagecoach: The Texas Jack Story and All Hat, well over two years ago. Neither filled me with patriotic pride.
But The Grey Fox is a must-watch movie for every Canadian everywhere, and for classic Western fans. It’s heartwarming without being saccharine, authentically low-key, casually feminist, and has shockingly great production quality that holds up 40 years later.
The Grey Fox is based on the true story of Bill Miner, the ‘Gentleman Robber.’ He started his illustrious career doing stagecoach robberies in California, eventually making his way to British Columbia – where he honoured us with our province’s first-ever train robbery.
- Fun Fact #1: Bill Miner is credited with originating the phrase “hands up!”
In The Grey Fox’s retelling, Miner’s early robberies from his teens into his 20s are lumped into one prison sentence, 30+ years at San Quentin. He’s released in 1901 into a brand new world that’s nothing like the Old West he knew. He’s now a senior-citizen-slash-ex-con with no concept of motor cars and electricity, but at least he’s got one really bankable skill.
Miner (played by Richard Farnsworth, rocking a glorious moustache) hops a train out of California, and is seated across from a chatty salesman. Miner looks like the sweetest older gentleman you ever saw, like you would trust him to hold your baby or watch your purse while you go to the bathroom. But when asked what he used to do for a living, he’s like, “I robbed stagecoaches.”
The delivery is so perfectly deadpan, and yet so sincere. You’re instantly on Miner’s side.
He goes on to find his sister, and tries to become an upright member of society. But he attends a showing of The Great Train Robbery, and by golly, Miner gets the old itch. Next thing you know he’s organizing his own train robbery with Shorty Dunn (Wayne Robson).
They bury most of the loot to avoid suspicion, and relocate to Kamloops where they pose as miners while planning their next robbery. But a Pinkerton agent is closing in on them! And at the same time, Miner falls for a local suffragette! What’s a lifelong bandit to do?
Farnsworth is quietly captivating, giving you subtle levels and layers that you don’t get in Hollywood’s cocky young Western leads. That’s what’s so unique about The Grey Fox – it’s a well-made movie about older adults experiencing action, drama, and romance. And never once is their age used as a joke.
- Fun Fact #2: Richard Farnsworth was a highschool dropout who got into rodeo at 16, and then became a highly paid and sought-after Hollywood stuntman, later co-founding the Stuntmen’s Association. But in his 50s he decided to take it easier on his body and shifted into speaking roles. The Grey Fox was his first leading role at 61 years old.
His performance is charming and optimistic – or perhaps Farnsworth himself is just effortlessly sweet. This guy had so much LIFE behind his eyes, you really feel a wealth of experience in every expression. He was the perfect choice to play this character because Bill Miner was known for being polite, which is probably why Canadians are obsessed with him.
- Fun Fact #3: Farnsworth was proud that he never swore in any of the 60+ movies he made.
Jackie Burroughs as Kate Flynn is sharp and blunt and bold, and so wonderfully unapologetic in her pursuit of equal rights. It’s a fantastic performance, even though the actual romance is fictional. Flynn is based on photographer Mary Spencer, who took the most famous photo of Bill Miner – after he was arrested.
- Fun Fact #4: Both Farnsworth and Burroughs appeared on the beloved TV ’80s series Anne of Green Gables.
Burroughs has so many good lines, like, “In this country you’re not taken seriously unless you’re Caucasian, Protestant, and most of all, male.”
Wayne Robson is memorable here, lending his physical comedy and trademark quirky voice to the “short, dirty, nervous, and unintelligent” Shorty (whose response to that description is “Hell, I’ve never been nervous in my life.”)
The Grey Fox oozes Canadiana from start to finish, but not like one of those terribly dry low-budget Canadian movies we were forced to watch in school.
Director Phillip Borsos makes excellent use of BC’s stunning natural scenery, and the entire movie was shot at or near where the real events took place – including the same railway Miner robbed. It’s a lot of fun if you live here, spotting all the familiar place names.
A collector loaned the production Miner’s actual gun, a Colt Bisley, which was used in Farnsworth’s close-ups. And Boros’s thoughtful use of clips from The Great Train Robbery throughout the film give the whole thing a nostalgic vibe that’s at once sad and hopeful.
I do need to say that there are quite a few confusing spots in The Grey Fox, too. There are multiple awkward jumps, like from a saloon to mid-robbery, that seem to skip over the good stuff for no reason. Although I enjoyed the relationship between Miner and Flynn, I would have been fine with less of that if it meant more time around Miner planning and executing the robberies.
And although I love a happy ending and it works well here, it’s one of many facts that got swept under the rug to make the movie. Bill Miner DID escape prison and flee back to the States, but he wasn’t running off to a romantic sunset. He continued robbing, getting arrested, and escaping prisons until he finally died in one in Georgia.
I’m glad I now know all about Bill Miner, and that I watched this movie. It’s well-made and deserving of its many accolades. I would definitely watch it again.