Like Brett, I’m captured from the opening moments of my most frequented film, The Man from Snowy River. It begins with the pounding of hooves in twilight, dark forms shaking the earth as a hundred horses gallop by in obscurity.
Then we meet father and son, Henry and Jim Craig, as mountain men with debts to pay and nothing but their wits and their hands to pay them. They decide to round up the wild horses and use them as a herd of broodmares, and this sets the stage for the struggle between man and beast, wild and domestic. Henry dies tragically in their effort to build a holding pen for the wild horses, and, now alone, Jim is left with no choice but to go to the valley and hire himself out as a ranch hand.
As movie magic would have it, the rancher with whom Jim finds a job has a beautiful, headstrong daughter (Jessica) and a grudge against mountain men, so Jim is not a favorite employee. Jim and Jessica break (horsespeak for train) her father’s prized colt in secret, and the colt and Jessica both run away, so it’s naturally up to Jim to save them. Amazing stunt-riding and beautiful scenery ensue.
I watched The Man from Snowy River as a horse-crazy kid, and I remember watching it again as a teenager, fresh off of a move to the backwoods of Oregon. It spoke to me then and it speaks to me now: although Henry Craig dies early in the story, the working partnership that he and Jim had and their grit-under-the-fingernails day-to-day spoke to me at a time when I, also, was working with my dad and my hands, carving a life out of an unforgiving woodlands. Henry lives on through Jim, as he ignores what’s accepted and strives instead for something more valuable, something his father taught him as a boy and he still lives by, although his dad is now gone.
I also appreciate it because it treats horses with respect but not with worship. It acknowledges their power and even stands in awe of their abilities, but still puts them in their rightful place as unique and beloved partners to human enterprise. Working with horses is a unique thing: they require dominance and love, direction and freedom, grace and firm control all at once, and The Man from Snowy River captures that tension perfectly through Jim’s horsemanship.
The film is based on cowboy poet A.B. “Banjo” Paterson’s 1890 poem by the same name. Read this with a cup of black coffee and see if it doesn’t make you want to saddle up and head for the mountains:
But the man from Snowy River let the pony have his head,
And he swung his stockwhip round and gave a cheer,
And he raced him down the mountain like a torrent down its bed,
While the others stood and watched in very fear.
He sent the flint stones flying, but the pony kept his feet,
He cleared the fallen timbers in his stride,
And the man from Snowy River never shifted in his seat –
It was grand to see that mountain horseman ride.
Through the stringybarks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground,
Down the hillside at a racing pace he went;
And he never drew the bridle till he landed safe and sound,
At the bottom of that terrible descent.
…where the air is clear as crystal, and the white stars fairly blaze
At midnight in the cold and frosty sky,
And where around The Overflow the reed beds sweep and sway
To the breezes, and the rolling plains are wide,
The man from Snowy River is a household word today,
And the stockmen tell the story of his ride.