THE AMERICAN MUSTANG IN FILM AND DOCUMENTARY
A review by Gabriele Moritz
A review by Gabriele Moritz
- Google the word “mustang” and the search engine produces an emotional account of a sleek, well engineered and stylish vehicle with a highly coveted hood emblem showing a racing steed, similar to the Mercedes-Benz star…
Now add the word “Horse” and the list of sad refrains and government bureaucracy litters the page. Our civilization assigns value only to what can be utilized, explored, extracted, exploited and manipulated – a wild horse that is not for hunt, nor slaughter, nor harvest or market – holds little to no value.
The film industry has recognized the mustang for symbolizing wild and freedom: Henry David Thoreau: ”In Wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Several 2010-2011 releases address the modern times of mustang life, once a symbol of the American pioneer spirit and western heritage and the only means of transportation. I have selected 7. Most of these documentaries show the stark contrast of equine beauty opposite degradation to pest and peril with no parole to the bottom of the pole. The viewer is reminded that this is the ONLY animal that had an entire act of congress devoted to its protection in 1971 and yet the mustang is struggling to survive a ruthless persecution by the very agency that is charged with its governance, maintenance and protection. With clean cuts of horses sparring in play to drill-rigs these films expose the bureau of land management (BLM under the Dept of Interior) carving in under pressures of industry stakeholders in a grotesque display of conflicting special Interests. An accelerated and aggressive soundtrack to images of stunt helicopter flying and sweat drained horses colliding with steel panels flushes out the fairytale that all is good on the western front. Steam rises from the prairie as 45 000 horses ship to await their sentence in Federal capture corrals.
What began with the commercial slaughter of mustangs for newly introduced dog food in MISFITS (1952 , Marilyn Monroe) and the children series FURY (1960s) lead to a public outcry in 1971 when WILD HORSE ANNIE (Velma Johnson) followed a slaughter truck that was leaking a trail of blood. A nationwide letter writing campaign ensued that resulted in the 1971 Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Protection act.
WILD HORSES AND RENEGADES by James Anaquad Kleinert (2010) was initially called “DISAPPOINTMENT VALLEY” and the documentation of one violent and deadly round-up in the southwest of Colorado. Then Kleinert decided to continue his research and expand and rename the film. At the ITN Distribution Film and New Media Festival in New York it won the Documentary Audience Award.
Kleinerts’ documentary examines the BLM’s controversial policies on public lands, while investigating the elimination of America’s Wild horses and burros. Recently 90 wild horses died and more than 40 mares aborted late term foals as a result of the Calico Roundup in Nevada. The BLM called the Roundup a success. Since 2001 more than 90 000 horses have been removed from their federally protected lands. More than 24 million acres have been eliminated from the original 54 million allotted in the 1971 Protection act. The removal policy is leading to the extinction of wild horses at a cost to the American tax payer of $ 120 000 each day.
Wild Horses and Renegades centers around dramatic footage of heart-wrenching wild horse roundups and interviews with Jim Baca (former director of the BLM), Michael Blake (writer of Dances with Wolves), Sheryl Crow, Viggo Mortensen (Hidalgo) Daryl Hannah, Congressman Grijalva, filmmaker Ginger Kathrens and scientific experts as well as animals rights and environmental activists. The documentary examines the effects of gutting the historic 1971 protection act with the 2004 Burns Amendment, which opened the doors to slaughter mustangs. It delves into the reasons behind the roundups and current impacts on western public lands by oil, gas, mining and corporate cattle grazing. How can the wild horses roam free in the way of corporate oil, gas, water, solar and mineral extraction. It examines the Environmental Impact statements (EIS) which are the basis for roundups and questions unsubstantiated scientific liaisons and studies. With the words of Jim Baca: “Our public lands are run by the oil, mining and livestock industries and it’s their way or the Highway”.
Always ready to tackle a challenge James Anaquad Kleinert, former world cup competitor in aerial freestyle skiing states: “Killing wild horses, running brutal roundups and shipping them out the backdoor for slaughter has been going on for years. I’m grateful for people like Willie Nelson and Governor Richardson for their support in exposing the danger for the wild horses faced with the “New Energy Frontier”.
With an unreliable census of estimated 20 000 mustangs left in 10 western states on public lands, (similar to the dwindling numbers of horses in 1971)
Wild Horses and Renegades illustrates that due to an accelerated round-up scenario, horse advocates, environmental activists, whistle blowers and watchdog organizations have joined forces utilizing social media and technology to investigate document and educate the public and to stop what appears to be an effort of MANAGEMENT FOR EXTINCTION..The mustangs are an indicator species – “If they’re fat the land is fat”They bear witness to detrimental impact on water and soil by commercial interests on a continuous basis. Very different from cattle or sheep who are seasonally removed for slaughter, the horses continue to reflect the health of our ecosystem.
Adds Viggo Mortensen (Hidalgo):” Wild horses are living things who have the right to coexist in what is a vast landscape, let’s do something about this.”
Asked about a recommendation for the future, Kleinert says: “We need to remind the BLM of its original mission statement. The public lands are a viable and valuable resource but NEPA (Nat. Environmental) policies and permitting processes need to be enforced and the industries need to self regulate themselves. No longer can big extractive industries be given a carde blanche and be permitted to assume Categorical Exclusions.”
Exploring a different aspect of the Mustang Pipeline is:
WILD HORSE WILD RIDE Alexandra Dawson Greg Gricus. (2010) Here we follow the horses after capture into training. The story of the Extreme Mustang- Makeover Challenge, an annual nationwide competition that dares 100 people to each tame and train a totally wild mustang in 100 days. Under the motto: from “Wild to Willing” or “From Wild to Wow”, “Rough in the middle and dangerous on both ends” the event culminates in a spectacular Finale and the public auction of the horses. Definitely again a controversial event, since horses and riders are under extreme pressure and the results are often even more traumatizing.
Hailed by the Hollywood Reporter as a “Crowd Pleaser” with a big heart the film traverses across the United States to tell stories of the profound bonds that can develop between people and these wild horses. From the rolling hills of New Hampshire to the Navajo Nation to the heart of Cowboy Country, the film captures the journey that is at times harrowing, heartwarming and heartbreaking as these wild-spirits – both human and horse – embark on the ride of their lives.
THE LAST OF THE SPANISH MUSTANGS – Len Johnson (2008) is a highly provocative and graphic, politically charged documentary focusing on a particular herd of Spanish mustangs beleaguered by the different stakeholders in public lands, ranchers and politicians lobbying for the removal and ensuing slaughter of horses from public lands. “Through interviews, extant footage and a gonzo documentary style that owes a lot to Michael Moore, Johnson is fearless in researching and filming the plight of the horses: Their enemies mainly the “Bureau”, originally called the “U.S. Grazing Service”, which fronts for big cattle interests and their entitlements.
MESTENGO –Sonja Richins. (2008) This film extrapolates the slaughtering of horses and mustangs in particular. American slaughterhouses were closed in 2008 due to lack of USDA inspectors. Horses are now being shipped to Mexico and Canada for slaughter and export to Europe and Asia. The conditions are horrendous. 10 hour hauls with no stop and no water. Many horses arrive injured or dead. Mexican Slaughterhouses have still use stiletto-type knifes to sever the spinal cord, that paralyze but leaves conscious. Discussed are studies that have shown that horses cannot be slaughtered humanely and the film emphasizes the pharma-contamination of all domestic horsemeat (never meant for human consumption) which is extremely toxic. Europe since has considered a ban and is currently revising import standards.
WILD HORSES IN THE WINDS OF CHANGE –Mara LeGrand (2011) premiered at the Egyptian theatre in Los Angeles. A soulful portrait it takes a look at another angle of the Wild Horse controversy. WILD HORSE SANCTUARIES play a pivotal role in the reorganization of Wild Horse Management as it will be required in the future. Sanctuaries are private non profit organizations that either adopt, save or rescue mustangs from government holding facilities or sales. THREE STRIKERS (horses that have been offered 3 times unsuccessfully for adoption) and U-BRANDS Horses that are older than four years and deemed undadoptable) are preferred prospects for Sanctuaries. Since these horses are under SALE AUTHORITY that means they have lost government protection and can be sold without restriction directly from the BLM facility or at an auction for as little as 10 dollars. Even though the BLM states that they do not sell directly to kill-buyers and slaughterhouses, they simply sell to the lowest bidder (which is the kill buyer).
The ever peaceful images of sanctuaries can lull the viewer into the assumption that this might be the saving grace for mustangs. The film shows the broken spirit in the eye of the wild horse, but also shows the broken spirit in us. Photographer Tony Stromberg comments: “As we help or wild brethren, we are also helping ourselves.” The debate of whether Private Sanctuaries are the solution to the Wild Horse controversy is characterized through the fact that these are all traumatized broken and sterile herds, whose family and bands structures have been destroyed, a far cry from the vibrant images of mustangs roaming on Western Prairies. (the public lands)
CLOUD –Wild Stallion of the Rockies (1995-2012) Ginger Kathrens. Emmy Award-winning producer, cinematographer, writer and editor of Cloud, wild stallion of the Rockies, Cloud’s Legacy and Challenge of the stallions.
This trilogy is a scenic feast for nature and animal lovers alike. Kathrens was assigned filming a PBS special by Marty Stouffer in 1994 and at the time witnessed the birth of a Palomino Foal colt, she called CLOUD. Over the next 17 years till today she has chronicled his and his family’s life in never before documented detail. Her films capture the vast landscape of the Arrowhead Mountains in Montana and the dynamics of life and death with regard to natural predatation and environmental impacts on the 150 horses on that particular range. This is the only continuous study of wild horse behavior and dynamics on record and has therefore become a treasured witness report for horse lovers and environmentalists alike.
SAVING AMERICA’S HORSES - Katie Louise (2011). Best Environmental Film – 2011 Intl North Film Festival, Best Documentary 2011 Los Angeles Intl. Women’s Festival. WFLF (Wild for Life Foundation) documents powerful equine protection campaigns together both national and international focusing on slaughter prevention and education. The film shows practices and legal issues surrounding both the domestic horse and the mustang slaughter industry.
WILD HORSE REDEMPTION (2007) director and Academy Award Winner, Canadian film maker John Zaritzky was inspired by a Federal program called WHIP (for Wild Horse Inmate Program) which portrays inmates in the Colorado Canon City Penitentiary having controlled and limited access to handling and training of some of the 2500 mustangs corralled by the BLM right next to the prison. Horses are available for adoption for $125.- before training, after training they can be purchased for $1025.
Jon Peterson, his lead character has been in prison 19 of his 42 years of life. Until he started participating in this program, he had no hope of anything better. If he is arrested again after his release, he will spend the rest of his life in prison as an habitual criminal.
John Zaritzky:” Throughout my career I have tried to raise awareness and change public attitudes…For many years I have been fascinated by stories of redemption and the idea that most people are never beyond reaching – if the right intervention takes place at the right time. When the story of the wild Horse Inmate Program came to my attention, I felt I had found the right personal story with which to illustrate the bigger issue”.
“IMAGINE A PLACE” - Christopher Crosby (2010) highlights the operation of the “Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, IRAM institute for Range and American mustang, founded in 1988 by Dayton O’Hyde in response to traveling by Federal Corrals and seeing hundreds of mustangs in deplorable condition. The 30 minute documentary explores the 11 000 acre sanctuary with 600 horses, which is dedicated to range and wild Horse preservation in a balanced ecosystem. There are currently probably several dozen wild horse sanctuaries operating differing in size and mission statement. Their role in the solution of the wild horse dilemma will increase in the future as there are currently over 41 000 horses in Government owned and taxpayer subsidized HOLDING FACILITIES in the country at a ticket price of $ 1.40- 1.70 per horse per day. The solution to this unsustainable and inhumane condition lies in the hands of our political representatives and lawmakers, that should decide to restore these horses to their rightful and dedicated WESTERN RANGES.
Strikingly absent in this list of Mustang portraits is a rendition by the BUREAU of Land Management itself. Looking at the website www.blm.gov emphasis is put on education and research and development of natural resources with ample video and film material. The WILD Horse and Burro Program is under “Ferner Liefen”.
I cannot close without mention of what was for me the dream of the Wild Horse of the West growing up in the 60’s. At the height of mustang extermination a series called FURY entered the hearts of german post war Children: The extremely lengthy opening explains it all: FROM OUT OF THE WEST, where untamed horses still roam the rugged valleys and canyons, comes Fury, king of the wild stallions. Wild as fury is there is one human voice he’s learned to love and obey.The voice of the boy who once saved his life, the boy whose unswerving devotion succeeded in taming a savage spirit where spur and lariat failed. There’s a mutual trust and affection that everyone can understand, THE ETERNAL STORY OF A NOBLE CREATURE OF THE WILD AND OF THE BOY WHO LOVES HIM…
A Hollywood production about WILD HORSE ANNIE (Velma Johnson) is scheduled to premiere in the summer of 2012, starring Wendy Malick as the woman who raised a nation on behalf of AMERICA’s Mustangs.
Sable Island Wild Horses (Canada)Robert Dutesco
Wild Horse Hank (1978) after the novel by Mel Ellis, “The wild Horse Killers”
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002) animated film released by Dreamworks
Touching Wild Horses (2002) starring Jane Seymor.
Hidalgo (2004) Joe Johnston, starring Viggo Mortensen