BUCK is a wise and warmhearted documentary by Cindy Meehl — her first film — about a little-known fellow called Buck Brannaman, perhaps the most gifted horse trainer in the US. And let no one suppose that the film is meant solely for horse lovers or racing fans. Meehl tells an absorbing story about one man’s triumph over adversity in a film that has much to say about our age-old relationship with the horse and the animal world.
There may be another way of looking at Buck. I like to see it as a belated recognition of Hollywood’s long-standing debt to the equine species. Since the beginning of movies, horses have provided not only many notable box-office heroes ( National Velvet, My Friend Flicka, War Horse) but countless unacknowledged extras for cavalry charges, chariot races and action sequences in B-grade westerns. And for this the horse has paid a heavy price. Until the 1940s it was common practice for horses to be ridden at full gallop before the cameras and tripped by hidden wires. During the making of The Charge of the Light Brigade, a 1936 film with Errol Flynn, those who rode bravely (and literally) into the Valley of Death included 25 horses who either died during the filming or had to be killed afterwards.
Even after the tripping of horses for rodeostyle events was banned in many US states in the 1930s, Hollywood studios continued the practice in westerns. Eight horses were killed during the filming of Jesse James, a 1939 film with Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, one being ridden to its death over a cliff. As many as 72 horses were reportedly trained for the chariot race in Ben-hur, and many suffered grievous injuries when they were forced to leap over crashed chariots or piles of writhing horseflesh. Ben-hur won 11 Oscars, including best picture, in 1959.
So it’s good to welcome a film in which horses are treated with some respect, even a certain reverence. The term is not one he would use himself, but Buck Brannaman is what many would call a horse whisperer, one of those people whose uncanny understanding of horses seems to be reciprocated by the horse itself. Buck is not a racehorse trainer; his job is calming disturbed or injured horses and preparing others for their working lives on farms and ranches. He wins the animals’ trust with patience and an unexplained rapport with their inner feelings (‘‘They’ve got to believe in you’’), though, to the untrained eye, even the gentlest training techniques are bound to seem harsh and unnatural. I hated watching lively young animals having their legs caught in ropes or hobbled with straps while they’re put through their paces as show performers. Clearly they are frightened and suffering. Not so, says Buck. Horses are natural dancers, with an instinct for rhythm and movement. Well, I wonder — though Buck is a man who plainly loves his horses and there are beautiful moments in Meehl’s film when you’d swear he was dancing with them.
For much of the year he tours to US cities and towns for his training sessions (or clinics, as he calls them), which attract both professional horse folk and admiring spectators. Often he’s accompanied by his daughter Reata, who is learning the trade as well.
Using nothing more than a rope held in one hand and a stick tipped with a piece of coloured cloth in the other, and with the occasional (inaudible) soft word or two, Buck cajoles and wheedles his charges, bending them slowly to his will while maintaining a firm discipline. ‘‘ Bribery doesn’t work,’’ he says. ‘‘ You must be strict but not unfair.’’
And Buck would know. He was himself the product of a cruel upbringing. After his mother’s death, he and his brother were raised by a drunken father, determined to train them for a family rope-twirling act at fairs and rodeos. The boys were drilled unmercifully and beaten for their failings. Buck remembers being ordered out of bed for early morning practice sessions. One night, with the temperature well below freezing, he fled from the house to sleep on a blanket with the dog. He gives credit for his deliverance to a local sheriff, Johnny France, who noticed welts on the boys’ bodies and had them turned over to a foster mother, a kindly soul whom we meet briefly in Meehl’s film. Some of the most discomforting footage shows two small boys and their father dressed in cowboy outfits and going through their rope routines. Buck was three years old when he first performed on stage.
He’s married now (we catch a glimpse of his wife Mary) and revered as a legend in the business. In his talking head shots (rather too many) we sense a calm, thoughtful man, ready to credit others for his own success.
Even Hollywood calls on his services occasionally. Robert Redford praises his contribution to The Horse Whisperer, the film Redford directed in 1998 (from Nicholas Evans’s novel). Buck was called in when no one on the set could induce a horse to nuzzle the face of Scarlett Johansson, the teenaged girl traumatised in a road accident after her own beloved horse is killed. Buck worked his magic and Johansson was suitably nuzzled. ‘‘ He’s the real deal,’’ says Redford.
Buck has been beautifully shot in some picturesque, off-beat locations, and we get a vivid sense of the warmth and camaraderie of rural community life. Meehl has made a quiet and unassertive film with some gentle reflections on the behaviour and both fourlegged and two-legged animals. Towards the end we are enchanted by the presence of a lively young colt with a coat of such bright gold that I wondered if the effect had been artificially generated.
This golden creature turns out to be savage and ungovernable. In the training ring he knocks a man down and draws blood. Not even Buck can tame him. His owner decides he must be put down.
I have never liked the term ‘‘ put down’’ as a euphemism for the killing of animals. According to Buck, humans failed that horse by not caring for it properly after its difficult birth. At least we can assume it had a peaceful death. Not long ago it might have been tripped by hidden wires on a Californian backlot and left to writhe in agony until someone put a bullet through its head.
Buck Brannaman shows his rope skills, learnt during a brutal childhood and turned into a career