Negotiations began in the afternoon, when I declared we’d have a big-screen movie night thanks to the projector still in my possession from the week’s business trip. Finding a film equally acceptable to a middle-aged guy and an 11-year-old girl proved more challenging than anticipated. Allison proposed the attractive-sounding Star Wars, but we’d just plowed through the original trilogy a few months ago. (I learned that there’s no greater fun than watching a kid cope for the first time with the devastating news about how things really are between Darth Vader and Luke.)
Other options included:
Tangled. Eligible for no more than one courtesy viewing on my part, and that had been used up over the winter.
Hoodwinked. A winner, but we lost the DVD somewhere along the line.
Princess Diaries. Moving on….
True Grit. Just kidding.
Finally, Allison stumbled upon a brilliant compromise: The Man From Snowy River. She had no clue what it was about, but it had a cool horse silhouette on the front, so she was intrigued. The movie had been sitting in shrink wrap since a relative gave it to me as a gift a few months ago, and suddenly, tonight was perfect for its premiere.
The 1982 movie was made on a low budget, about $3.5 million, and somehow made its way to the US, where it sold an impressive $20.7 million worth of tickets.
The Plot: Mountain cowboy Jim Craig is forced to find a job in the low country after a demonic wild stallion kills his father and the mountain people decide Jim hasn’t proven himself worthy of living alone in the hill country. At his new job on a ranch, Jim falls for Jessica, the rancher’s daughter, who—Romeo & Juliet-style—is prohibited by her cattle-baron father from fraternizing with this mountain trash. Meanwhile, Jim carries on a somewhat Ahab-like quest to take down the stallion that killed his father and, not incidentally, assimilated Jim’s favorite saddle horse into the wild herd (known as the “brumbies”). Comedy relief comes from the rancher’s twin brother, who lives in exile at a mountain goldmine and waits for Jim to stop by and ask for life advice.
The film is spectacularly photographed and holds up well three decades later, despite some flaws. The freeze frame on the wild stallion with screeching violins is strictly B-movie. Jessica is portrayed as a spunky lass battling gender stereotypes, but every time she steps out of the ranch house, she requires Jim to rescue her from things like angry horses and mountain ledges. And the dialogue includes some clinkers, like in the final scene when Jim looks at the herd of brumbies and says, “There are 12 good broodmares in that herd. I’ll be back for them—and whatever else is mine.” Then the camera gives us a close-up of Jim’s favorite broodmare, er, Jessica.
Looking back, it’s hard to overstate the impact this film had on my little subculture of horse people back in the ‘80s. Because we were solid fundamental Baptists who avoided movie theaters as if they were Amy Grant concerts, we had to wait for Snowy River to become acceptable entertainment. Namely, that meant the day when it could be viewed on videocassette instead of a movie screen.
At that point, our equestrian lives were revolutionized. Every weekend trail ride we attended was suddenly populated with oilskin dusters and low-crowned Australian hats. Riders with extra cash traded in their Western saddles for Aussie models, which had the cosmopolitan look of an English saddle, but none of the Jane Austen overtones. Aussie saddles were built for work, with honest-to-goodness saddle horns and solid swells that held you in the seat like no Western saddle could. Exotic and tough as a thorn bush; just like Australia itself, it seemed to us.
Even when we weren’t out on the trail, Snowy River was all around us. Every high school girl remotely connected with horses spent her spare hours playing Jessica’s Theme on the household piano. Repetitive as it became, Jessica’s Theme at least freed us from the era’s other high-school girl staple Heart and Soul.
- 1. It always pays to be a good horseman. In his book about Buffalo Bill, Larry McMurtry reminded that we should never underestimate how far a man can advance himself simply by looking good horseback. Jim Craig proves the point all over again. He looks about 15. He’s fairly scrawny. But sitting his horse on a ridgetop, he leaves every audience smitten.
- Cowboys aren’t the same as gunhands. The cinematic American West is generally won by men who are good with a sixgun. But in Snowy River, nobody every pulls a trigger (although one ranch hand threatens it when other cowboys are fighting dirty against Jim). Jim gets the girl and gets his favorite horse back simply by being the best in the land with a stockwhip in the backcountry.
- High-end actors are worth it. The evil rancher and the jolly miner are both played by Kirk Douglas, a casting coup I can’t explain. I’m sure the Snowy River production budget looked something like this: “Mr. Douglas’ salary: $2.9 million. Helicopter rental: $.3 million. Everything else: $.3 million.” But it was money well-spent, as Douglas owns the screen as both villain and the hero’s wingman.
- Old-school stunts still have their place. The film’s climax has a mob of cowboys pulling up short at the edge of a steep hill, afraid to follow the wild horses down. Then comes Jim, ripping past the cowards, leaping over the precipice and galloping down what looks like a 45-degree slope. And it was all real. When Snowy River came out, articles in the horse magazines explained how actor Tom Burlinson really flew down that mountain on a horse, all in one take. When the scene was over, Allison was agape. “That’s crazy!” she said. Digitized robots may be destroying entire digitized cities in every other film right now, but a gutsy guy bombing down a mountain on a horse still leaves them talking.
- Romance can wait. At the film’s end, Jim rides off into the mountains, promising to return for his string of horses—and Jessica. As the credits rolled, Allison griped, “I hate this ending. How do we know if he actually makes it back for his horses?”