Horizon: An American Saga — Chapter 1 Review

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1
It’s the 1860s, and as the US Civil War rages back east, a loose assemblage of characters head west for a settlement called Horizon, running into conflict with the Apaches who already live on the land.

by Helen O'Hara |
Published on
Original Title:

Horizon: An American Saga

The Western has been declared dead more often than Dracula, but Kevin Costner — who turned to the genre as soon as his fame allowed him to make his own movies — is betting a considerable chunk of his personal fortune that there’s life in the ol’ horse yet. The result is a meandering three-hour oater that is only the opening salvo of a longer epic (Chapter 2 will follow in August; Chapters 3 and 4 are still in production).

Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1

His gamble may well pay off. It instinctively feels that there should be an audience for an old-fashioned tale of warring settlers and Native Americans; of wagon trains and saloon girls. Younger audiences may not have been raised on the theme’s endless variants like Costner’s generation, but that might help some of his hoarier beats feel fresh. The stirring landscapes and iconography of the time remain potent, after all, and cinematographer J. Michael Muro wrings the stunning locations for every drop of wonder.

Really, it’s a series of vignettes. Some are thrilling or funny; others drag.

The problem is that the settlers can no longer be seen as heroes, and in trying to acknowledge the competing forces battling for survival on the frontier, Costner sometimes falls short. Dances With Wolves showed considerable empathy for the tribes displaced by the American frontier, as do some scenes here, but they follow an initial burst of appalling savagery that undermines the ‘both sides’ sentiment. Costner also makes an effort to include the non-white people who shaped the West, from Chinese railroad workers to Black townsfolk, but few have substantial roles. Nor is it obvious whether his treatment of Sienna Miller’s Frances Kittredge is commenting on the Western tradition of near-deifying white womanhood — particularly the beautiful blonde kind — or simply reinforcing the old trope. She doesn’t have enough internal life to make it clear. A few time-jumps in the film are also muddily signalled, so that a final montage that essentially advertises Chapter 2 initially appears like just another disjointed leap.

Costner’s own “horse tramp” doesn’t even appear until an hour in, so it’s no simple vanity project (although his character turns out to be immediately lusted after by a glamorous, much younger woman). Really, it’s a series of vignettes: an attack, a stand-off, a chase, a comedy skit. Some are thrilling or funny; others drag. Yet after three hours, most of our presumptive leads are still to see the titular town of Horizon, or meet one another, and there’s little sense of how their destinies will intersect. Then, the film just… stops. Only two months until the next one, but it would have been nice to make this feel like a complete story, like the classics that inspired it.

It's fine for an epic to sprawl, but you want a sense of purpose at the same time, and this one sometimes loses its way. Still, it’s handsomely shot and well performed, a throwback to the glory days of event-movie horse operas.
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