Release Date: 2002
Language: English (also French, Italian and Spanish)
Runtime: 83 min
Directors: Kelly Asbury, Lorna Cook
Production Co: Dreamworks
Main Vocal Cast: Matt Damon, James Cromwell, Daniel Studi
…Instead of everybody wanting a ride and pound of flesh.
“They say that the history of the west was written from the saddle of a horse, but it’s never been told from the heart of one. Not till now. I was born here, in this place that would come to be called the Old West. But to my kind the land was ageless. It had no beginning and no end, no boundary between earth and sky. Like the wind and the buffalo we belonged here, we would always belong here. They say the mustang is the spirit of the West. Whether that west was won or lost in the end you’ll have to decide for yourself but the story I want to tell you is true. I was there and I remember. I remember the sun, the sky and the wind calling my name in a time when we ran free. I’ll never forget the sound and the feeling of running together. The hoof beats were many but our hearts were one.”
After we’re told the above we see a montage of a foal growing up as colt to a stallion, it’s sweet and endearing. He gets on with many other animals and they get on with him, there’s a gorgeous moment where he and others his age are drinking but feel the earth quake and while the others quickly move to their mothers he stays and ends up in the way of a buffalo stampede. He’s so innocent and friendly that the buffaloes don’t mind (and hey he was there first…) Evidently there’s social norms he doesn’t quite get but it’s not a bad thing and he knows the meaning of responsibility, inheriting his position as head of the herd, he loves his mother dearly and looks after everybody.
Unfortunately his naïveté and curiosity to be kind to other species changes his life when he finally meets some two-leggeds i.e. humans and militant humans at that.
We have an upstart on our hands fellas – deal with him.
This was not a creature meant for captivity, though technically that should apply to all, but some will keep trying to break free ‘til the end, even the bitter end and even if ‘freedom’ is not all it’s cracked up to be in this world when surrounded by those with other ideas.
Our protagonist (Spirit) is to be ‘broken in’ and domesticated for military use and transport commerce but he’s not having it. Method after method is used; chained in the corral, starved/dehydrated, ridden rodeo style/beaten – you’d think such treatment counterproductive to having an efficient servant but looking at history/present we know it’s a numbers game with tools being dispensable and replaceable; the utmost is done to break the spirit whilst damaging the body just enough so as to keep it basically functional – and it almost works at least temporarily but even in despair and depression some of us have a living spark.
His guts and endurance inspires the other horses which worries people and the captain mostly as he’s got a troublemaker on his hands and increases his already egotistical need to break this one to solidify his firm belief and teaching that everyone and thing can be conquered. It makes them feel big to pretend to be winners with all the backup, torture, weapons and resources, dishing it out and going schizo if any is returned or questioned.
During this period I began to think the horses were a parallel for native Americans; the taking of his mane reminded me of why those peoples and many Asian peoples traditionally have long hair and some Euro & Asian peoples have parts of their hair long, the obsession with cutting hair and removing body hair which isn’t unique to but rampant and regimented into normalcy in modern civilisations (and the use of it at some places/points as punishment for crime). Then the story (unproven, though they did recruit Montagnards in Vietnam for tracking) that during the Vietnam war US special forces tested on ‘Indians’ (native Americans) to find about extra-sensory perception and tracking ability via hair as an extension of the nervous system (there is searchable study on the nervous system part at least) and its ability to increase/maintain mental awareness. Additionally our lack of ability to grow it long again once significantly cut and as we get older in comparison to those with less modern lifestyles. Then whaddaya know? Yep here comes a ‘hostile’ or ‘noble savage’ aka native prisoner kept next to the four-legged ‘beast’.
But native Americans are people too.
What ensues is a bid for escape and a chase akin to the policeman stalking Valjean in ‘Les Misérables’ (1862).
When we’re shown the indigenous village Spirit’s former co-inmate lives in there’s a stark difference between the treatment and place of horses in their society. They roam the village and interact with the people. The former prisoner has his own horse (female) who catches Spirit’s attention, well he doesn’t have a choice really but they become bonded in more ways than one. Using what I’ll call the ‘reign method’ though it’s unclear whether she is called Rain or if the filmmakers are referring to the dual reign that is put on both horses so that Spirit is calmed, kept in check, doesn’t run off and to tame him (perhaps it’s both her name and the method). (The ‘Join-Up’ native American domestication method shows they tired the horses and put them between a rock and hard place so to speak to seem like they had a choice in following the people.) She’s very protective over her human companion but also interested in Spirit, who is still kept in a corral and undergoes several attempts at being ridden. But Spirit is a stubborn one 😉 and I felt a heartfelt thank you when her owner acknowledged and admitted
‘I’m never going to ride you am I, and no one ever should’
and gave him his freedom, not that he should have tried let alone repeatedly. That said genuine friendship and having to rely on each other is another matter so Spirit does allow him at times.
Inverting the Western
I’m not generally a fan of Westerns, it’s not that I’m adverse to them I just find their plots & scripts formulaic and the results one dimensional. We came to this here land, which was up for grabs and fair game especially since the darkies who lived/still living here are backwards, impure, don’t speak English (though we can’t abide the English) and can’t/don’t make the best use of it, they make good gun fodder and servants though har har har. We pretty much rule the roost, though we fight and drink all day and shoot each other for over a misplaced look or cheatin’ at cards in the local brothel. The sheriff is good, the bandits is bad and the black fellas (‘Indians’) are wholesale pointless but saleable; lotsa assets here if you know where to look, willing to work hard and take what you can, who knows maybe one day it’ll rain. Noah style.
There are a handful that impressed me such as ‘Mackenna’s Gold’ (1969) (ironically seen as sub-par to many) but I prefer it when it’s used in a combination of genres such as the animes ‘El Cazador de la Bruja’ (2007) about a bounty hunter and witch who become close on a strange journey with stranger relationships and ‘Trigun’ (1995) about a hopeless but indefatigable optimistic pacifist who wants to use his guns to bring about peace and equality, attracts devastation wherever he goes but cares for everybody (and ‘Desert Punk’ which is adult and tacky/borderline humour, bit like the ‘South Park’ of Westerns.)
‘Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron’ turns all that upside down and tells the game to drop dead. The cavalry are the bad guys, the native Americans the good side, the animals are part of the land and have every right to live freely on/in it. The film proudly demonstrates a link between people, other animals and the land; a bond that when forgotten or desecrated allows us to also disrespect each other and everything becomes a struggle and power play.
In regards to the good and bad sides, it maintains simplicity and stereotyping (White Man is Bad, In’jin is Good – ignoring that native people also have classism, sexism, animal sacrifice etc) though thankfully it doesn’t do a Romeo & Juliet/Tony & Maria pastiche and bring one child from each side together to mend the divide as if that’ll save society and maybe even the world. I’ve read criticism that the film claims technology is bad; this refers to the development of the railways – I disagree, I think the film simply shows that people have used animals [and still do as well as other humans] as slave labour, that it is dangerous, unhealthy and that some animals will try to flee. Ultimately not having complex characters, side-switching nor multiple storylines doesn’t take away from the film, as aforementioned there’s enough clichéd Westerns of the opposite type for this one to stand out and still be very watchable.
This is not an anthropomorphic film.
Anthropomorphism – a lot of people look down on it, some offended by it, some think it’s not a good example for their children. I have no problem with it, I don’t mind relating to others either through my own eyes or theirs although I find it strange in some media how the main characters are humanistic animals but their pets/food/other animals are still portrayed as animalistic and/or inferior. It ranges from socio-political commentary such as in ‘Animal Farm’ (book version, 1945) to coming of age stories like ‘Charlotte’s Webb’ (book version, 1952) to the many animations we see everyday aimed at children and crazy ones like ‘Road Runner’/’Tom & Jerry’ (both 1940s+). ‘Spirit’ doesn’t use or need it. We only hear a character’s name once if at all and it’s a case of actions speak louder than words yet the names are still meaningful.
Spirit’s thoughts are given a narrator’s voice over once in a while by Matt Damon but overall it’s there only as a gentle aide-mémoire, to give a little explanation or introduction. The horses neigh and verbalise in what we consider their own tongue, their movement and mannerisms (excepting the facial expressions which are humanistic) have been paid attention to.
All throughout the film I thought “this horse has tremendous spirit” and it was only after I looked it up online (I hadn’t known what I was watching) did I find that his name was actually Spirit, that’s how well the story is told and how compelling it is.
The visuals are drawn in what I consider high quality yet simply shaded ‘old fashioned’ animation style with rich earth tones; warm rather than sharp and bold and yet still lends itself well to all the motion in the story. There’s both the feeling and look of elation, heart racing, speed/flying and it didn’t need obviously modern graphics to engross the viewer.
The soundtrack is very noticeable and vocalised by Bryan Adams (in the English and French versions) and the end theme a duet with Sarah McLachlan. Given that there is little dialogue in the film the lyrics provide commentary and enhance the situations – too much so at the beginning in my opinion but well paced and better than Bon Jovi’s ‘Blaze of Glory’ (for ‘Young Guns II’ – 1990 – though ‘Dead or Alive’ was my favourite song of theirs/his back when used to like them).
Whilst it’s formulaic it’s not predictable, I was surprised and grateful that it met my hopes, I’d been worried when the native Americans introduced/roped him to the lovely mare thinking “oh great, please don’t ruin this and do the whole he falls in love, settles down, has an heir, is the happy father.” (The Lion King – 1994 – was a great film, great if very long play and epic for its day but childish in comparison to this.) Heck I liked the mare – she’s spunky, coy and charming with a feather in her mane but I’m sick of the massive majority of media I’ve seen since 2000 focusing on the ‘circle of life’, we already had the birth/growing up scene for crying out loud. He does fall in love and there is heartbreak, tragedy, twists and an ending but it’s more fitting to the strong yet gentle wanderer/wayfarer theme that I wanted to see and did finally. All Spirit wants from the very start is to be happy at home and as the film continues he feels confused, torn, grieved but ultimately the beginning and the end is the same, it’s all about home and that feeling of belonging yet peacefully free.
I think its poignant that the focus of this story is a mustang – a breed of horses that came from escaped Spanish domesticated horses – rather than a ‘wild horse’. Spirit has a racial lineage/memory of being used/kept and then knowing what it is to be wild and has no intention of losing that [again].
I don’t usually agree with everything my favourite characters say/do/are and that’s to be expected but if I had been born a horse I can imagine being just like Spirit in this film. Characters showed their true colours when they looked at the horse and said ‘wow, he’s beautiful’ and next thought automatically = grab the ropes, trap him (and there’s profit to be made). Be a beacon, not a tool.
Black Beauty (1877) – written by Anna Sewell, became a classic and portrayed in several formats. Black Beauty remembers the love from his mother and the days pulling cabs in London, he recounts them in his retirement as examples about morality.
War Horse (1982) – written by Michael Morpurgo, has become a modern classic and as a former theatre goer I regrettably missed it on stage even moreso as I was one of the children who went to work at Nethercott Farm/House (Narracott Farm in the book) and so lived with the writer for a week, I even remember the room I stayed in (‘Candlelight’). War Horse is about Joey, a horse bought for use in World War I and his tale of pain and consistently being bought/sold and finally reunited with his human friend Albert.
The Last Unicorn (book 1968 by Peter S. Beagle, film 1982) – in terms of pure force and feeling like Spirit, the animated version of this is one of the most evocative and moving films I’ve seen; about a unicorn who is thought to be the last of her kind but she doesn’t believe it and goes on a harrowing journey to find/rescue the others. It has a similar (more folksy) soundtrack and interestingly enough produced by people who thereafter went on to be Studio Ghibli who then made ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’(1984) – both are very symbolic, magical films.