Horizon: An American Saga Chapter 1 review – Kevin Costner’s very, very long cowboy epic is no Yellowstone

Horizon: An American Saga Chapter 1 review – Kevin Costner’s very, very long cowboy epic is no Yellowstone

The first chapter in Kevin Costner’s four or possibly even five-part cowboy epic is the movie equivalent of a three-hour ride around a western theme park. If you’re a fan of Stetsons, stirrups and six-shooters – and if you have plenty of patience – you may enjoy the experience. But there’s a hell of a lot of waiting around before you get properly in the saddle.

Horizon is a project Costner has been trying to make since the late Eighties, and designed to expand into multiple films over many years, each exploring the impact of the American civil war on the fictional town of its title. The first two chapters are complete (the second is due for release in August). Part three is in production and part four is due to shoot next year. Major studios wouldn’t finance a project on this scale, so Costner mortgaged properties to pay for it himself. He recently told Empire magazine that he has pumped an astronomical $58m (£45m) of his own money into the saga.

This first part, at least, has a strangely ritualistic feel, as if the writer-director-star is staging a series of elaborate homages to his favourite cowboy movies rather than trying to tell a story of his own. Every scene and character here is familiar from old John Ford, Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone films. Or even from episodes of Costner’s hit TV series Yellowstone (with which the film shares several locations).

Other than Clint Eastwood, Costner knows better than almost any other living filmmaker how to make westerns. After all, he is the man who brought us Dances with Wolves and Open Range, both equally ambitious and equally tough to finance. The former, about a US army first lieutenant who befriends the Sioux people, was one of the most successful westerns in history; it won seven Oscars and made a fortune at the box office. The latter, about honest cattlemen confronted by a corrupt lawman, was also warmly received. Both played on the nostalgia factor, but avoided the racist chauvinism so often associated with the genre.

Visually, this new film is every bit as stately and handsome as its predecessors. Nonetheless, it’s hard to keep track of its many different plot strands and characters. The narrative starts in 1859 with settlers surveying land in the San Pedro Valley, naively oblivious to the hostile Apaches watching over them. A woman called Lucy (Jena Malone) is shown bursting into a frontier settlement, shooting a grizzled man at point black range and then skedaddling with a blond-haired child.

Before we can get any proper grip on what is going on, Costner stages the movie’s first big action set piece. The Apaches raid the Horizon settlement in the middle of the night. This is riveting, very violent filmmaking that provides the movie with a much-needed jolt of wild energy. Homes are set on fire. Frontier folk desperately try to protect themselves by blockading the doors, but the Apaches are on the roof. Some of the women (including Sienna Miller’s Frances) hide in an airless tunnel beneath their cabin as the slaughter continues above them. By the time the US cavalry arrives, the settlement is destroyed.

Kevin Costner in ‘Horizon: An American Saga Chapter 1’ (Warner Bros)
Kevin Costner in ‘Horizon: An American Saga Chapter 1’ (Warner Bros)

The earnest, idealistic lieutenant Trent Gephardt (Sam Worthington) asks the very pertinent question: “What are we doing here?” The white settlers, he points out, are encroaching on the indigenous people’s territory.

Costner’s character Hayes Ellison is even more taciturn than John Wayne in The Searchers. Wearing a mountie hat and a walrus moustache, he’s one of those mysterious cowboy loners who prefers scowling to talking. He rides into a remote frontier town seemingly to trade horses. An improbably glamorous young courtesan (Abbey Lee) accosts him one minute, and he finds himself in a gunfight the next. Whether making love or shooting someone dead, he is the same imperturbable presence.

One storyline, that plays much like a Yellowstone prequel, follows a wagon train heading westward ho. Another features a posse of white vigilantes who want to slaughter Apaches and sell their scalps. This isn’t exactly a revisionist western but at least it features indigenous actors and sometimes takes the Apaches’ point of view. Costner makes excellent use of landscape, both those dusty red plains and mountains we remember from Ford films and the verdant Montana forests and golden valleys that we also saw in Yellowstone. The film’s impressive sense of scale and majesty is amplified by the swirling John Debney musical score. It’s just a pity that the exposition is so clunky and so slow on the draw.

And while this first chapter of Horizon is very long, it turns out to be not quite long enough. The ending is strangely abrupt. It’s as if someone has simply told Costner that it’s time to stop, despite nothing having been resolved. The wagon train is still at the start of its journey. The burgeoning romance between Worthington’s lieutenant and Sienna Miller’s doughty but elegant frontierswoman hasn’t got beyond a first demure kiss. Most of the other main characters have barely been introduced.

Costner has already been on the trail for three hours but it turns out he has gone virtually nowhere. Before the final credits roll, he ambushes us with a frenetic montage of gunfights and chases from the next film in the cycle. While this explosion of images hints that An American Saga may spring fully to life in its later episodes, it also serves to remind us just how laborious this first chapter has been.

Dir: Kevin Costner. Starring: Kevin Costner, Sienna Miller, Sam Worthington, Danny Huston, Michael Rooker, Jena Malone, Abbey Lee, Luke Wilson. 15, 181 mins.

‘Horizon: An American Saga Chapter 1’ is in cinemas from 28 June