Archive for Horses and Film

Flicka: A Movie Review

Mary O’Hara’s famous 1941 novel My Friend Flicka was made into a popular 1943 film starring young Rodney McDowell. In the book and the original movie, the main character is a young boy learning life lessons on a Wyoming ranch through his love for Flicka, a beautiful sorrel mare. There was even a My Friend Flicka tv series that ran in the 1950’s.

 The Girls Have It

In 20th Century’s 2006 Flicka, Ken McLaughlin has morphed into Katy McLaughlin, a teen girl uninterested in schoolwork. On her first morning home from boarding school, Katy runs out to the stables and dashes on horseback off into the spectacular Wyoming landscape. A wild mustang mare saves the reckless girl from a mountain lion attack, thus setting up a conflict between Katy and her dad. The glum quarter horse breeder, played by country singer Tim McGraw, doesn’t want a mustang on his ranch. Economic woes, a headstrong daughter, and the undeniable love of Katy for the beautiful black Flicka create the main dramatic elements in the film. Katy overrides her father’s orders and gentles the wild black mustang.

 What Happened to Ken?

The 2006 film has gorgeous footage and is sure to be a favorite of preteen girls. But what happened to Ken in this re-make? The reissue of this classic tale with a sex-change in the main protagonist reflects an important aspect of culture in the Western world. More women own horses in the U.S. and Canada than men, and women are now dominating most of the equestrian sports with the exception of racing and polo. The original novel and film were made at a time when horses were still the domain of the boys and men. In the 1950’s horses lost their primary jobs in agriculture and warfare, and since that time girls and women have increasingly dominated the stable. In the film, it is Katy’s brother who is interested in leaving the ranch to go to college, and Katy who is drawn to the land, the horses and the ranch.

 Catch the Ending

While there are many who fuss over the differences between the original story/movie and the 2006 version, most seem to agree that the cinematography in the recent film is spectacular, as is the landscape. Some reviewers have found the story too saccharine and trite. Of special note, though, is the very ending of the film. With beautiful footage of horses and her parents as a backdrop, Katy, played by Alison Lohman speaks:

 “I believe there is a force in this world that lives beneath the surface. Something primitive and wild that awakens when you need an extra push just to survive. Like wildflowers that bloom after a fire turns the forest black. Most people are afraid of it and keep it buried deep inside themselves. But there will always be a few people who have the courage to love what is untamed inside us. One of those men is my father.”  The last scene in the movie shows the exhilarated Katy riding Flicka. As the camera catches the ecstatic look on her face, Katy says, “When we’re riding, all I feel is free.” 

Don’t Miss the Horse Girl Photos

As the credits roll, dozens of photographs of girls and horses reinforce the deep kinship so many girls have for their horses in a beautiful photo montage. When I saw Flicka in the theater, a young girl gasped as she saw her own picture on the screen. Promoters of the film had collected photos of girls and horses nationwide, and hers had been selected.

 Conclusion

The gender change of the main character shows an important cultural trend (as well as savvy marketing.) In the last five minutes, the filmmakers have evoked an important aspect in the psyche of horse girls. Indeed horse girls and horse women do seem to be able to hear that primitive and wild force that Katy describes. If horse love is an important developmental stage in girls’ emotional growth, as Diane Ackerman says in A Natural History of Love, Flicka certainly captures it ably. Katy’s love for the wild Flicka helps her take risks, demonstrate responsibility, and experience the heady taste of freedom. I personally enjoy movies with independent heroines that have upbeat endings, and the last five minutes is worth the price of the video rental.

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Women, Horses and Freedom

Girl on a Horse

I recently read a paper written by Isabella deMoss[1]. She described her girlhood experience when placed on a retired racehorse:  

When this horse caught wind of the wide-open space ahead and took off like lightening, I instinctively crouched low and became one with the horse, pulling on the reins with as much force as my ten-year old, 50-pound self could muster. I can still feel the wind pushing at my face, sending my own waist-length ponytail sailing behind me. Terrified. Exhilarated. Afraid for my life. Free. All at the same time and wanting this feeling to last forever.  

This exhilarating experience of freedom is, as deMoss writes, frightening as well as liberating. Horses are synonymous with freedom for many of us. 

National Velvet: Freedom Inspires

Another young girl enamored with freedom is Velvet Brown, the fictional heroine of Enid Bagnold’s novel, and the 1944 film National Velvet. Velvet, played by the young violet-eyed Elizabeth Taylor, watches the highly-spirited Pie jump over fences, and break through constraints that would hold another horse. Although naturally shy, Velvet’s love for her steed sparks a dream of riding him in the Grand National Steeplechase Race. Just as the powerful Pie breaks through limitations, Velvet, too fights against restrictions placed upon her because of her sex, and even her own temperament.  

Runaway Bride: Freedom as Autonomy

In The Runaway Bride, the 1999 film starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, the symbol of the horse is used throughout the movie to symbolize a woman’s freedom and autonomy. In a dream sequence from the very first scene of the movie, Roberts is seen in a wedding dress fleeing on horseback. Maggie, played by Julia Roberts, has left several bridegrooms at the altar. In the film action, Maggie is about to wed, and a big city reporter comes to her small town to witness the phenomenon of the “runaway bride.” The reporter, played by Richard Gere, is hunting for a story, and hoping that she will flee again so he can get his magazine cover article. He has previously written a newspaper column reviling her for running away from marriage which has brought her into national attention as the “Runaway Bride.”

 

Maggie is the butt of the townspeople’s jokes because of her wedding flight and apparent fright of marital commitment. The reaction of the townspeople, and the media circus attending her wedding speak to the powerful patriarchal taboo against the single childless autonomous woman who has resisted the pressure to mate and marry. As Gere interviews the previous men Maggie has left at the altar, he learns that she has adapted herself to each potential husband. Though she may not be able to articulate her fear, she is terrified of losing her authentic self to marriage and pleasing her mate.

 

The reporter and the Runaway Bride fall in love. Yet Maggie bolts from their wedding, too, even though she loves him and he has seen into her soul. She may not know why she runs from him, but until she has retrieved herself, she is unable to mate.  It is an important quest. Premature marriage would restrain her unbridled self. Maggie takes risks and forges a new artistic career for herself, which causes her to venture away from her small cloistered town, to New York where her lover lives.

 Running Away as Running To

The final movie scene returns to the bride on horseback, but this time she and her reporter bridegroom ride their own horses, denoting equal access to freedom and power. The act of running away, often perceived in western culture as an act of cowardice, is in this case a remarkable act of bravery. The runaway motif in this film is truly a running away from traditional expectations and a “running to” the authentic self.

 Women, Horses and Freedom

As the ten-year old Isabella deMoss experienced, freedom can be both liberating and frightening. Perhaps the deep attraction that so many women have to horses is a longing for the freedom to be our authentic selves without the layers of cultural expectations upon us. Freedom often involves upsetting human societal norms and expectations. And, just like Isabella, Velvet, and Maggie, we can not taste the exhilaration of freedom unless we take the risk to embrace and experience our true selves.

  


[1] deMoss, L. (2007) Horse as Healer: Touching Spirit in the Borderland. Carpinteria, CA: Unpublished paper.

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