American Mustang, a Swift Rascal Production film, takes us on an incredible 3D journey, showcasing wild horses of the American West with a unique mix of documentary and narrative.
The story begins with a young girl asleep in her bed, dreaming about horses. She sees them running free on the range, but soon the dream becomes a nightmare. There are helicopters in the distance, loud noises. The horses begin careening over the terrain, screaming and biting each other. They’re corralled into pens and then stock trailers. We follow a bay as he looks out the slits of the trailer as it speeds down the highway, then… Boom! The girl’s toy horse falls from the nightstand, shattering on the ground.
The bay arrives at the girl’s ranch, where it begins training with Luke and his brother.
The girl immediately forms an attachment to the horse and names it Pegasus. She watches Luke’s training sessions every day, researches Mustangs for school, and in general becomes a horse-crazed girl!
Then we move on to the narrative of a wildlife biologist and wild horse advocate, voiced by Darryl Hannah. She gives us a brief introduction to herd dynamics, detailing how horses have complex social relationships.
Next we meet a cattle rancher. He has a deep voice (think Marlboro Man) that reminisces about the Old West as well as Muybridge and his zoopraxiscope invention. Unfortunately, this character immediately gets cranky. His voice turns harsh and hateful when he growls, “the range is for cattle by right.”
Then we are introduced to the White Mountain Herd. These scenes are quiet, with no background music. You can imagine yourself walking amongst them, listening to their snorts and whinnies, feeling the brush of their tails as they swat at a fly.
Over the course of the film the story revolves between the four archetypes: the young horse-crazed girl, the trainer, the biologist, and the cattle rancher. It also follows the lives of the White Mountain Herd and gives bullet points of pertinent information such as…
- Over 50,000 Mustangs are stockpiled in government holding.
- Only 27,000 wild horses remain free on public lands.
- The BLM manages over 256 million acres of public land.
- Private livestock outnumber wild horses 50 to 1 on that land.
- Near $80 million annually is spent on government holding of wild horses.
About halfway through the film, the tone turns more ominous. We witness the roundup of the White Mountain Herd on August 22, 2011 and their processing afterwards, including castration for males and neck branding. The narrator spins a web of conspiracy…truckloads of horses disappearing, sold for as little as $10 a head, then shipped off to Mexico for slaughter or to be used in the Mexican film industry. We’re given grim scenes of desolate horses, ripped from their families, living in dirt pens.
The film closes with trainer Luke riding Pegasus for the first time. The girl watches heartbroken from the sidelines. Pegasus is no longer wild, she laments. Now he’s just “like the other horses.”
That night the girl has a new dream. She sees an old Mustang on the horizon, “born in the wild and meant to die free.”
Let’s talk the technical aspects of this film first, because they deserve a huge round of applause. American Mustang marks the first time that wild horses have ever been filmed using Stereoscopic 3D technology. That alone makes this film worth watching but the director, Monty Miranda, didn’t stop there. The camera work is simple and superb, catching just the right ambient lens flare on a close-up or zooming out so that nothing but a stark silhouette on the horizon remains. There are also really clever moments like when we are given the horse’s point of view, yellow-greenish tint and all.
While I didn’t always agree with the music selection, it didn’t distract or overpower. The Zen style soundtrack used during Luke’s training sessions was well thought and added to the meditative quality of what I was seeing on screen.
Unfortunately, the film’s content fell flat for me. First I was confused, mainly because I wasn’t being given any information about the narrators. They were telling me they were cowboys, biologists, and ‘experts’ but I didn’t have any proof! Then I realized that most of these people were in fact fictional characters based on interviews of their real life counterparts. This significantly detracted from the story because from that point on I didn’t know what was real or imagined.
I only found out later that the film’s producer, Ellie Phipps Price, actually did start a 2,000-acre wildlife preserve in northern California and that Luke and his brother are real horse trainers. There is also a real man, named Tom Davis, which bought over 1,700 Mustangs from the BLM, all of which have mysteriously disappeared.
It was the filmmaker’s prerogative to use a heavy hand with the pro-Mustang sentiment but, based on my personal tastes, I would have preferred to see the duality of the argument. This was alluded to briefly, when the cattle rancher said in one breath that he loved his loyal cow horse despite hating the wild herds, but the idea was never truly fleshed out. The BLM and cattle ranchers were depicted as one-dimensional, nefarious villains. I imagine them lurking in dark corners, fiddling with their moustaches as they peer out from beneath the rim of their black hats.
But the creators of American Mustang have stated in several interviews that they set out to make a movie that “appeals to a wide, family audience and doesn’t depict cruelty.” In that vein, they truly succeeded. The film is a conversation starter and would be particularly appropriate for education programs of kids aged 13 and under. The innovative 3D aspect, capturing picturesque scenes of horses running fast and free, will no doubt draw in an audience that would shy away from a more serious documentary.
At one point in the film Luke states, “There’s a lot of stories about Mustangs, but the truth? It’s somewhere between romance and reality.” I believe that is an ideal description of this film as well.
I give American Mustang 3 Golden Horseshoes.
American Mustang opens April 18th in Portland Oregon.
All photos in this review are courtesy of American Mustang the Movie presented by Swift Rascal Productions, a production of Just Media.