Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

(Kelly Asbury & Lorna Cook, USA, 2002)


Although this fact would not be evident to many members of the general filmgoing public, there are certain movies whose reviews, across the board, are largely derived from the press material handed out by studios and distributors.


This is not usually a matter of payola. It occurs especially when reviewers, lacking imagination and facing a tight deadline, encounter a film that is genuinely unusual or original.


This animated feature from a major studio, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, is one such film. It is quite simply the most surprising mainstream release of its year, in both its content and form.


Even those reviewers who do not rely on press kits might decide, lazily, to detach themselves from this film within its first few minutes. Sweeping imagery follows the flight of an eagle as it presents us to a panorama of the American West, while the first of many Bryan Adams songs extols the virtues of freedom, beauty and the unfenced wilderness.


Soon we are into a scene of traditional, Disney-style anthropomorphism. A stallion, Spirit, is born. The women of his breed nurture him and the men offer the tough, life lessons, as the child cutely runs and plays.


The film hits its stride once we reach the adult life and times of Spirit. Now social history enters the picture. And our hero is a free spirit reluctant to let himself be caged and tamed by anyone, be it a gentle Native American or an army of marauding soldiers.


The publicity material on this film presents it as the work of producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, producer at DreamWorks studios. This rather obscures the contribution of co-directors Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook. Of course animation, more than any other cinematic form, is intensely collaborative.


Nonetheless, the style of the film, fusing visual fluidity with a carefully composed orchestral score by Hans Zimmer, is often awe-inspiring. Even the Bryan Adams songs are an integral part of the whole. Not since Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven in 1978 has American cinema explored such a poetry of nature with quite this wide-screen gusto.


Amusingly, one commentator found “peculiarly feminine” the unusual love triangle which colours the film. This is the gentle and rather lovely interaction between Spirit, the mare to whom he becomes attracted, and the latter’s Native American rider. Watching the mare cavort with her human friend, Spirit is compelled to ponder whether such inter-species affection is ‘natural’. Naturally, the film itself supports such overflowing love.


Sadly, it has become something of a reflex among some critics to mock as terminally politically correct any entertainment film that exhibits a liberal conscience about ecology or the rights of indigenous people. When the movie is Pocahontas (1995), and political conscience is a matter of trading in superficial stereotypes, the mockery has a point.


However, as a political film, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron raises itself to an altogether bolder class. And here another unsung auteur appears, the talented screenwriter John Fusco, known for progressive Westerns such as Thunderheart (1992) and the Young Guns series. In some sense, Spirit is what critics used to call a revisionist Western. That is, it sifts through the conventional iconography of the genre and criticises its standard values.


There are no cowboys on display here, for example. It is a Western told from the viewpoint of animals and Native Americans, in which the white cavalry figures as the beastly villain.


At this level, the story is straightforward but effective. A long sequence in which Spirit, his fellow horses and a Native American all figure as prisoners of fascistic white men leads to a rousing breakout and victory for the oppressed.


But stronger stuff is yet to come (it should be noted for parents that several, extremely intense scenes in the film can leave very small children wailing with angst). Spirit’s lyrical voice-over reflection (spoken by Matt Damon) poses to us at the outset an unusual question. It is up to us to decide, at the end of the tale, whether “the West was won or lost”.


In many ways, what the film offers us is a fully prelapsarian vision of the West, Eden ‘before the fall’. None of the usual signs of Western civilisation (like towns or territorial boundaries) have encroached by the time Spirit’s final ‘ride with the eagle’ comes around.


Indeed, the most remarkable and haunting passage of the movie is devoted to Spirit’s militant attack on the sole image of that civilisation, the first train designed to cross and bridge different parts of the country. This has traditionally been a triumphant or (at a pinch) ambiguous image in the Western (recall the American mythology of the pioneer train as, precisely, an Iron Horse). Here it is a full-blown symbol of evil.


Spirit’s apocalyptic destruction of the train – the battle between a real horse and an Iron Horse – is an ecstatic, utopian moment. For in this moment we leave history and enter an unusual realm of myth, an imagining of what the West would be if the white man had never colonised it.


These are not the kind of dark, subversive thoughts one usually entertains these days while watching a Hollywood movie aimed at kids.

MORE Fusco: Hidalgo

© Adrian Martin June 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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