‘Horizon: An American Saga’ Review: Kevin Costner’s Chapter 1 (Of 4) Sets Stage For Epic Story Of American West And Its Complicated History – Cannes Film Festival

There can be no doubt if there is one person bound and determined to keep Hollywood’s long history of Westerns alive it has been Kevin Costner. Okay, well Clint Eastwood too. And that has been true right from the beginning of his career when he played the freewheeling scene stealer Jake in Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado in 1985, and he also made an impression as title star of 1994’s Wyatt Earp. But his real mark on the genre has been not just as an actor but also as director and producer behind the scenes, first with his Oscar-winning 1990 Best Picture Dances With Wolves and 2003’s terrific Open Range with co-star Robert Duvall. For the past few seasons he has prominently been involved in a more contemporary take in his hit TV series, Yellowstone. But without question his most ambitious and sprawling swing yet, Horizon: An American Saga, which kicked off Sunday night at the Cannes Film Festival in an out of competition world premiere, is the pinnacle of this star’s love affair with the West and how it evolved.

Running three hours, this film, scheduled for release by New Line and Warner Bros on June 28, is just “Chapter 1”, first of an unusual planned series of four separate films (not sequels) continuing the massive story, with Chapter 2 already in the can and scheduled for an August 16 release, and Chapter 3 reportedly going before the cameras imminently. Of course this multi-part saga is not unusual for television, where it thrives in the limited series form, but for movies it is virtually unheard of — along with the fact that its star/director, who has been dreaming of this in various forms since 1988, is largely footing the bill.

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Is he tilting at windmills here? Are today’s post-pandemic movie audiences ready to sign on and stay with it? Time will tell, but this first chapter is exactly what you would expect from Costner, who has delivered a movie smack in the tradition of the genre where greats like John Ford and Howard Hawks once rode with seminal classics that still live on but in which new attempts are few and far between. In fact I just saw a stunning 4K 70mm restoration of Ford’s endlessly copied 1956 classic The Searchers, a movie whose influence you can see even in Warner Bros’ upcoming post-apocalyptic Mad Max saga, Furiosa.

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But nothing on this scale has ever been attempted for this kind of release pattern on the big screen, and I would say, at least based on the first part with its huge cast of characters and storylines woven in and out, Costner’s biggest influence may have in fact been 1963’s Cinerama production of How the West Was Won. I know from multiple interviews in the past, including mine, Costner has always noted the impact seeing that film (nominated for Best Picture and winner of three Oscars including Best Original Screenplay) with his father made a lifelong impression on him. It similarly traversed many years, characters and story arcs like Horizon does but was just one long, reserved seat movie event. Horizon has four times its spirit at the very least.

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Spanning about 15 years from the end of the Civil War (a factor but not the focus here), Horizon is about the expansion and settlement of the American West, those brave white people who made their way on horse and wagon trains to the promise of a new life. Literally. In the movie Horizon is the name of a basically suburban dream. Flyers are continually seen urging people to come West. “If you want a farm or home the best thing in the West is the town of Horizon. Best grazing land in the world, the richest land, premium virgin land with pure and abundant water, temperate climate, and excellent health,” it advertises to potential settlers.

What it doesn’t say is it is also the home of American Indians, our Native Americans, many who are understandably not too keen about this development on what they consider their territory, and that it could also be a dangerous proposition. But this is a film about Manifest Destiny, and therein will lie many of the complications for these (many) people we meet along the way. And of course in different parts of the world this concept makes this movie still relevant, even as it is told as a piece of our history.

It is clear from this Chapter 1 that Costner, who co-wrote the script with Jon Baird and a story from Mark Kasdan, is interested again in this conundrum with the Indigenous population, just as he was in Dances With Wolves in going for a much deeper and complex study than what Hollywood largely did for decades in its treatment of the American Indian on film. And coming on the heels of another film that premiered in Cannes last year, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out in the upcoming chapters. In this one the table is set and we meet a lot of the key players, with the emphasis on those white settlers who made their way west as the Civil War had ravaged the Union, but with the promise of changing times giving hope.

Chief among the settlers is Costner’s character, Hayes Ellison, a lone wolf type who would like to keep to himself but keeps getting drawn into things he would rather avoid. He has survival and fighting skills that will come in handy, especially in some confrontations with very bad guys who are making trouble, notably the outlaw Sykes family.

Refreshingly, Horizon includes a large number of meaty roles for women, not usually the case in this type of film. But there are plenty here, led by fierce pioneer woman Frances Kittredge who has, not so willingly, come along to the settlement with her husband. Sienna Miller plays her with force and she promises to be a key component going forward. Jena Malone’s Ellen is also a highlight, a feisty and badass female who will get into some dangerous situations unfortunately. Abbey Lee’s Marigold, who boards with Ellen and her well-intentioned husband Walt (Michael Angarano), is another strong female role here, as are those played by Ella Hunt as a British settler coming west with her husband, and Isabelle Fuhrman as Diamond, who with her sisters is making her way west and potential for a sweetened storyline down the road no doubt.

This is a huge cast, but Costner tries to get them all introduced here including the intriguing Sam Worthington character of First Lt. Trent Gephardt, a soldier stationed at Fort Gallant but a guy with questions about himself and where he is going in this new world. Danny Huston’s sympathetic Col. Houghton has his hands full with the emerging droves of settlers, but knows there will be no way to stop, or possibly protect them when they get to Horizon. And you can count in Michael Rooker’s Sgt Major Riordan, who has the same concerns at Gallant.

Others include Luke Wilson’s good but reluctant leader of a wagon train, chosen against his will but trying to live up to the challenge, and Will Patton, a widower still recovering from the Civil War and accompanying his three daughters for a better shot at life.

The Native Americans are authentically cast, as you might expect in any movie from the filmmaker of Dances With Wolves. Standouts include Owen Crow Shoe as Pionsenay, an Apache warrior who is confused and frustrated with clashes with the settlers and none too pleased at this development, as opposed to brother Taklishim (a fine Tatanka Means) who is siding with their father, the Chief, in trying to be non-confrontational. Liluye (an excellent Wase Winyan Chief) is also his wife and mother of their baby, but she seems to have more fortitude and actually believes they should, like her brother-in-law, be resisting the rise of the settlers rather than sitting idly by.

Giovanni Ribisi, Glynn Turman, Tom Payne, Kathleen Quinlan, Angus MacFayden and countless others also pop in and out, some with perhaps more to do in ensuing chapters. There are more than 170 speaking roles in the series which is being shot on locations in Utah, with stunning cinematography by J. Michael Muro who captures the grandeur of the Old West in style. Other shout-outs go to Derek R. Hill’s authentic production design and John Debney’s stirring score.

For Costner, this is an impressive beginning, with the promise of more to come. It even ends with a montage of scenes from the second film coming in August, much like you might see if this were a television production, something it is defiantly not. With Horizon: An American Saga, Costner is just trying to keep the American Western alive, but he may, with this innovative roll of the dice, also be trying to keep theaters alive at the same time, that is if there is still an appetite for Westerns. Hopefully there is.

Title: Horizon: An American Saga
Distributor: Warner Bros
Festival: Cannes (Out of Competition)
Release date: June 28, 2024
Director: Kevin Costner
Screenwriters: Kevin Costner, Jon Baird
Cast: Kevin Costner, Sienna Miller, Sam Worthington, Jena Malone, Danny Huston, Luke Wilson, Michael Rooker, Will Patton, Owen Crow Shoe, Tatanka Means, Wase Winyan Chief, Jamie Campbell Bower, Isabelle Fuhrman, Jon Beavers
Rating: R
Running time: 3 hr 1 min

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