Horse sense

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

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

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