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Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1 Review

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Photo of Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner

New Line Cinema

Rated: R

181 Minutes

Directed by: Kevin Costner

Starring: Kevin Costner, Sienna Miller


Horizon: An American Saga Poster

There are two ways to view and review Kevin Costner’s long-form Western, Horizon: An American Saga, the first part of which is now in theaters. We can view this film as part of an eventual 12-hour epic whose contours are shaped by the three-hour portion now available. That’s how reviews of TV limited series are often written. Networks or streaming services release the first handful of episodes for reviewers, who then extrapolate and make educated guesses based on what they saw to evaluate the series as a whole. However, movie critics must base reviews on what they just watched, not what they might see months or years from now. On that basis, Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1 is entertaining but significantly flawed.

Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1 (which I will refer to simply as Horizon from now on) is the story of the American westward expansion before and during the Civil War. The entire saga will extend an additional dozen years. The story centers on the “town” of Horizon, on the banks 

of a river in the San Pedro Valley in southern Arizona. I use the word “town” advisedly because Horizon is little more than a handful of tents for much of the movie. The town is the brainchild of an Eastern real estate developer named Silas Pickering (Giovani Ribisi), who stoked interest in the project by distributing thousands of flyers promoting the settlement as a near-paradise where settlers could get hundreds of acres of free land. Ribisi only appears in one brief scene at the movie’s end, but his prominent credits listing indicates he’ll play a more active role in later chapters of the saga.

While Horizon offers the promise of a bright future for new settlers, it also provides a source of food for the indigenous Apaches who hunt there. They don’t react well to the settlement, first killing the surveyors laying out plots and then, three years later, attacking the actual settlement one night, killing most of the inhabitants. From here, Horizon has three main storylines. The first involves the attack survivors and the garrison at the nearby Army fort that will provide some protection. Frances Kittredge (Sienna Miller) and her daughter survived the massacre of her family by hiding in a hidden passage under their cabin. She later finds some solace with Lt. Gephardt (Sam Worthington) of the local garrison.

Horizon’s second storyline revolves around Lucy (Jena Malone), an abused wife who shoots her husband and flees the Montana territory with their infant son. They finally arrive in Wyoming, where Lucy changes her name to Ellen Harvey and marries a local entrepreneur. They also gain a tenant, a prostitute named Marigold (Abbey Lee), whose goal is to find a man who can take care of her permanently. That man might be Hayes Ellison (Kevin Costner), a roving cowboy who is in the right place at the right time to save Marigold and Ellen from relatives of her former husband. Finally, the movie shows a few scenes of a wagon train headed for Horizon.

The movie doesn’t end on a cliffhanger; instead, all the storylines are in relative limbo as the film ends. However, none of the storylines are resolved. In the case of the wagon train, viewers learn the main characters and the budding conflicts among some of them, but little else. Ellison dispatches one sleazeball, trying to kill Lucy and Ellen, but the rest of the family is still out for revenge. And viewers have little idea how Frances and Lt. Gephardt can rebuild the devastated settlement. In addition, a band of white scalp-hunters searches for the Apaches who massacred the original settlement, using equally barbarous tactics against any Native Americans they encounter.

Horizon covers a lot of geographic ground in its three hours, and much of it is majestic western scenery. Kevin Costner admits he was influenced by the 1960s epic, How the West Was Won, and he takes every opportunity to showcase the grandeur of the unspoiled West. On that basis, Horizon is successful. Costner has the same eye John Ford had when he made classics like The Searchers. The most exciting scene in Horizon occurs when some of the Apaches who massacred the settlement chase a survivor across the desert on horseback. However, most of the other scenic shots establish how insignificant people are against the grandeur of the West, especially scenes showing Apaches high in the mountains looking down at the plains below.

The screenplay that Costner co-wrote with Jon Baird discusses the social implications of the Westward journey. Both the whites and the Native Americans viewed the settlers’ push as an unstoppable natural force. As the fort’s commanding officer, Danny Huston eloquently explains the settlers’ inevitability. Conversely, in the aftermath of the settlement massacre, Pionsey (Owen Crow Shoe), the warrior who led the raid, clashes with his more pragmatic brother, Taklishim (Tatanka Means). Taklishim’s fears are proven when the scalp-hunters raid the Apache village. That second attack is even more vicious than the original massacre since it was clearly motivated solely by the bounty to be collected for the scalps, no questions asked.

The two massacres and Ellison’s brief shootout comprise almost all the action in Horizon. Those expecting the massive-scale set pieces of How the West Was Won (not to mention the star-studded cast) will be disappointed. Most scenes just try to establish characters with varying degrees of success. The white villains are stock characters who could have come from any 50s Western. Michael Rooker’s veteran army sergeant recalls similar characters played by Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen in John Ford’s Westerns. Even though Horizon is three hours long, key character development scenes seem to have landed on the cutting room floor. Viewers never learn why Marigold is living with Ellen and her husband, even though they both disapprove of her lifestyle. And the entire wagon train storyline seems truncated mid-episode. Luke Wilson is the decent, practical-minded wagon master, but we get setups of other budding conflicts with no resolution. In particular, an arrogant British couple with a very sexy wife who rubs everyone else in the wagon train the wrong way leads to…

Actually, the antics of the British couple lead to nothing, at least in Chapter 1. Instead, the last five minutes of Horizon are essentially an extended trailer of clips from upcoming scenes. These scenes promise more action, although anyone who has ever seen a modern-day trailer knows how deceptive that can be. Viewers can guess there will be a confrontation between the English couple and the others on the wagon train, but not its exact contours or resolution. Moreover, there’s no compelling desire on the audience’s part to find out, at least not to the extent of plunking down another 20 dollars for Chapter 2 in August. Chapter 1 ends with no storylines resolved. The acting, score, and camerawork are uniformly excellent. “Horizon” lacks the star power (besides Costner) of How the West Was Won, but its supporting character actors all acquit themselves well. I enjoyed Chapter 1 on its own enough to give it a mild recommendation, but audiences would have been far better off watching it as a limited series. Chapter 3 of Horizon: An American Saga is currently filming, with Chapter 4 planned. Hopefully, Chapter 2 will offer some finality to some storylines. Otherwise, that planned Chapter 4 may always be beyond the horizon.

Kevin Costner discusses making Horizon: An American Saga on CBS Sunday Morning:

Read other reviews of Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1:

Watch Kevin Costner on Amazon Prime Video:

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