The Electric Horseman, starring Robert Redford, offered an early  insight into the commercial culture of spectacle and simplification that now dominates much of America, and a growing part of the world.

The Electric Horseman: Escape from
the Desert of Images

by Ken Sanes

In the last few decades, we have seen the emergence of a new kind of culture in America based on manipulated images, marketing, themed entertainments and hyped up television news stories. In effect, we have seen the rise of the image and, as the historian Daniel Boorstin predicted at the beginning of the 1960s, as image has come to dominate, values have fallen away.

But in this same period of time we have also witnessed another development -- novels, movies, television programs and social critiques now routinely portray this new culture and try to understand it. As we will see throughout this site, these works convey the same set of messages over and over, making clear that they are expressions of a deep and, very likely, universal response we have to a world full of image and simulation. Whether it is the 1970s science fiction story The Futurological Congress, which is described elsewhere, or a host of other works that will be examined, we are forever being shown characters who are trapped in worlds of falsehood and illusion. We follow their travails as they escape from their tinsel paradises and find a more authentic life.

A good example of these works is the 1979 movie The Electric Horseman, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. Unlike many similar works, it doesn't warn us about the danger of this new culture of  images by portraying the future as it might evolve from our present-day excesses. Instead, it depicts the role of  the image in contemporary America and manages to capture many of the trends that now dominate our very real world of illusion.

The movie takes place in the West, where the new image-based culture, epitomized by Las Vegas, coexists with an older economy of ranches and towns that still maintains some sense of connection to the still older economy of the Old West. Inside this setting, it shows us four kinds of players that now characterize this culture, as they interact and play out roles that represent trends in contemporary society.

One player it shows us is a multi-billion dollar conglomerate known as Ampco, epitomized by an amoral corporate executive, Hunt Sears. Ampco is very much a part of the new West and the new world of manipulated appearances that characterizes the late twentieth century. Its modus operandi is to convert reality into fantasy, turning whatever it touches into a form of entertainment, to lure consumers into buying its products. For Ampco, the world is the raw material for the creation of images that are, themselves, either commodities or sales pitches that can be used to sell commodities.

Through the wonders of marketing and advertising, Ampco has created a false public image of itself in which it is identified with one of its many properties -- the $12 million thoroughbred, Rising Star. To sell its cereal, "Ranch Breakfast," it has similarly turned a rodeo champion, "Sonny" Steele, into a comic book version of a cowboy, pasting his face (or a version of his face altered by the art department) on cereal boxes. Steele often appears in public in garish, multi-colored cowboy costumes that seem to have purple as their default mode, usually atop a horse, as both he and the horse are bedecked by flashing lights.

Second, it shows us Steele, a five-time rodeo champion who, like many other people, has found a niche for himself in the new economy as a human image. Once, he performed in rodeos, which offered audiences a theatrical and ritual reenactment of the substance of the Old West that still had some connection to the social reality it depicted. Like gladiator games, they weren't merely "shows" but life-and-death contests in which the subduing of nature that was once the essence of the West, was depicted by a genuine struggle. But now, like much else around him, Steele has become a themed (which is to say, falsified) version of himself, a character in Ampco's universe of reinvented reality.

Unfortunately, it seems that he also suffers from a kind of alienation that is common in a culture of simulation -- everything in him resists being turned into the walking embodiment of hype. He has no idea how to project an image of himself or the product or the company, nor does he have any interest in doing so, preferring to escape his sense of disquiet over what he has become by losing himself in a different kind of illusion, dispensed from a bottle. At one of many events in which he rides before the public in flashing lights, he shows up intoxicated and falls off, a cardboard cutout of a cowboy who keeps falling down on the job.

Third, the movie shows us a celebrity television reporter, played by Jane Fonda, who has made a name for herself acting as a simulation-buster or exposer of just the kind of manipulations Ampco specializes in. But she has, herself, made a fortune packaging reality into hyped-up stories, as a form of entertainment, and distorting it in the process.

The plot thickens as Steele, who is supposed to do a Las Vegas show with Rising Star in those electric lights, becomes upset at the degradation that both he and the horse are subjected to, and at the fact that the company is pumping the horse with steroids to increase its muscle mass, and giving it other drugs to calm it down and make it possible for it to walk with a strained tendon. In response, Steele does what his name says -- he takes the multi-million-dollar stallion, riding it down a Las Vegas show ramp at Caesar's Palace; through a casino, where luck and fate have themselves been turned into commodities; and down the ultimate commodified and themed street of the Las Vegas strip, a man wearing a suit of flashing lights on a street of neon. He then rides off into the desert, with the intention of setting the horse -- and himself -- free.

At this point, Ampco recognizes that Steele represents a threat to its way of doing business. In particular, it fears that if he reveals the corporation's mistreatment of the horse, it will jeopardize a planned hostile takeover of another company.

"We're not talking about a horse," the venal chief executive, Hunt Sears tells a number of his corporate toadies. "We're talking about a 300 million dollar merger...If Steele talks to anyone before he's caught, we have no merger. Ampco and the horse are the same thing. If we've mismanaged the horse, we've mismanaged the corporation."

Meanwhile, through various acts of con artistry, the reporter finds Steele on the run, out in the open country of the West, and tries to talk him into telling her his story.

"...I don't want to be no story. I've just retired from public life" he tells her. Having just escaped being an image for Ampco, he doesn't want to be turned into another one by the news media.

But Hunt Sears has other ideas, embarking on a public relations strategy designed to destroy Steele's reputation. As he puts it to his toadies, "We could make sure that if he speaks to anyone, he won't be believed. Can you get to the media by the 11 o'clock news..."

At this point we see another side to the simulated society, in which a war of demonizing and idealizing images takes places to win a political battle. On one side, Ampco leaks misleading information (based on a grain of truth about Steele's drinking), alleging that Steele is an alcoholic and a drug addict, and potentially dangerous to the horse. Having invented Steele as an idealized hero, it will now reinvent him as a villain. On the other side, Steele, with no other way to defend himself, allows the reporter to tell his story. She conveys a real but over-heroized image of his good self and good intentions that will undo the misleading image created by Ampco.

As the plot thickens, Hunt Sears does what his name says and has his operatives hunting for Steele. The reporter then treks with Steele across the desert to the place where he plans to set the horse free, in the hope that she can persuade or trick him into letting her videotape its release. He refuses and symbolically throws away her camera, because it is weighing them down. She then has a real adventure with him and a real love affair, and is changed as a result, to the point where she is able to see him as something other than as raw material for a "story", and thus agrees to keep the place where the horse will be released a secret. Along the way, she loses her bravado, as well, and it becomes clear that she is being set free a little bit also.

As a result of the news story she did before they went on their trek, the truth comes out; public opinion rallies to Steele's side, and Ampco suddenly claims that once its own investigation revealed what was happening to the horse, it agreed with Steele. The system is as corrupt as it was before, but authenticity has won a small victory over the manipulated image.

In the climactic scene, we see the stallion set free, running (in slow motion) toward other horses, somewhere in what is left of untamed nature in the West. It is now free to live according to its nature, rather than as a character in one of Ampco's demeaning dramas.

As this brief summary makes obvious, The Electric Horseman tries to get its audience to experience some very large truths about contemporary society, which were already obvious when the movie was made. By inviting us to identify with the hero and the horse he rescues, as he takes his pilgrimage from image to nature, from a false life on camera to an authentic life off, it tries to get us, symbolically, to take the same journey. The movie wants to, itself, be a simulation-buster and hero, leading us out of the false paradise of illusion that is contemporary culture.

But there is another reality that it fails to adequately take into account, namely that it is also, like the creations of the fictional Ampco, a collection of manipulated -- idealizing and demonizing -- images, designed to sell itself and its message. Like many stories told with images, it is a form of ideology that takes the form of reality to show us its point and involve our emotions, rather than trying to convince us with arguments. Through its manipulations, we come to hate the machinations of business; we come to see simplified entertainments as sinister and authentic nature as good; and we come to see the news media as flawed, but essentially on the side of right.

The contradictions inherent in the movie's role as image-buster and image fabricator, truth-teller and manipulator, are particularly evident in the way it portrays a fourth player, namely the public, which is, of course, ourselves. On the one hand, the public is depicted as consisting of fans who love the manufactured cowboy and the manufactured food he endorses, and are oblivious to the deception and degradation involved. This aspect of the public is dramatized in a scene early in the movie in which Steele shows up late and drunk to a publicity event that will take place before a big crowd. As a result, a double is put in his place, riding around with electric lights -- a fake impersonating a fake.

"That's not me" he says in disbelief, as he watches his double do his act.

"They don't know the difference," one of the producers of the show sardonically tells him, making clear that the movie is pointing a finger of blame at the public for allowing itself to be manipulated by this culture of images. (The scene also conveys another message, of course: in a world of false appearances, we are all replaceable.)

But, later, we see the public in another role, as a supporter of the side of right. Here, once the public learns the truth about the mistreatment of the horse, it rallies to Steele's side.

To some degree, these two depictions of the public capture contradictory aspects of the American people. Still, it transforms the public into hero for an obvious reason: if it were to portray the public primarily as a dupe and willing accomplice, the story would have been less emotionally satisfying for audiences and had less market appeal. In other words, the movie transforms the image of the public to that of a hero because it is responding to the same market pressures that lead the fictional Ampco to hang lights on Sonny Steele. 

The Symbolism and Domains of Meaning
in The Electric Horseman