Power, Freedom, and Horse Movies: The Silver Brumby and The Man From Snowy River

After I finished reading Elyne Mitchell’s The Silver Brumby, I had an irresistible urge to find out if there was a movie. Sure enough, there was, and it was a Prime Video option: The Silver Brumby, aka The Silver Stallion. 1993. I dived right into it.

What I wanted out of it was visuals. The landscape. The animals and plants. I wanted to know what a snowgum looked like, and what kind of mountains Thowra ranged through.

I got that. I also got insight into what makes a film likely to succeed, versus a book which can go much deeper into detail and—significantly here—can offer viewpoints that might not sell so well to the wider audience of film. Mitchell’s book belongs to Thowra’s—his viewpoint for the most part, and he is the protagonist. It’s all about him. If you use the term gaze, what you get here is the brumby gaze. The eyes and mind that tell the story are primarily those of the wild horse.

The film shifts the whole thing to the human gaze. Its framing narrative is author Elyne Mitchell and her horse-loving daughter Indi on their cattle station (though we never see any cattle, we are told they exist) while dad and the other kids are away, long term and for unspecified reasons, in the city. This saves on the actor budget and narrows the focus to the mother and daughter, with a small supporting cast of locals. Thowra’s story is fictional, or so Indi initially thinks: it’s a local legend which Elyne is turning into a novel at night and Indi is grabbing chapters as they come off the machine. Eventually Indi learns that there really is a wild stallion whom the locals are after, and one of those locals has a face we viewers will recognize once he appears in the story-within-a-story.

It’s all about Elyne and Indi. Elyne keeps the place running, issues Moral Pronouncements to her daughter, interacts with neighbors including the guy who rounds up brumbies and breaks them in harsh stockman style, and helps Indi rescue an injured kangaroo joey who provides opportunities for Moral Moments and Significant Parallels. In between these episodes, she tells us the story of Thowra, the “creamy” colt born in a storm “just like this one” that opens the film.

But it’s really not Thowra’s story so much as that of The Man (on the Black Horse), played by the lithe young Russell Crowe. The Man first sees the colt after rescuing a calf from a creek, lusts after him, and devotes his summers to trying to capture him. It becomes an epic conflict interspersed with the minor epic of Thowra growing up, seeing his father killed by his rival The Brolga, and rather quickly maturing to challenge The Brolga himself. But the real drama is between Thowra and The Man.

It’s The Man who buys the beautiful Golden at auction for twice the next-highest bid, specifically to trap Thowra. Thowra steals her, sires a foal on her, and she goes back The Man to foal, then Thowra steals her and his daughter back—aided by a fortuitous (magical)(divine) bolt of lightning that destroys the horse pen. Then The Man calls in the big guns, the famous tracker Darcy (a man of color, but not as dramatically so as in the book), and chases Thowra off the cliff—and there it ends for Thowra, with The Man wiping away a tear. And that’s it, Indi thinks as story and frame come together with the news of the stallion hunted to his death. But then she and her mom hear a whinny on the wind, and share a moment of knowing something The Man (and the rest of the men) don’t know.

This isn’t just human gaze, it’s male gaze. It’s all about the man who sees something wild and beautiful, has to have it, and that overwhelming selfish greed kills it. And he’s devastated because he lost it.

The book has a very different ending, because it’s Thowra’s story. We know why and how he made the leap, and what happened after. He’s more than a prize for The Man to win. He fakes his death, and takes his herd (and Storm’s—there’s no Storm or Arrow here; horse-wrangling budget didn’t stretch that far, and the film isn’t about the horses anyway) into a hidden valley. And there they live thereafter, while his legend grows in the human world.

In the book, Thowra wins it all. In the film, all he wins is his freedom. It costs him his life. We get a bit of an epilogue that suggests otherwise, but what we see is the leap off the sheer cliff and “no hope” for the horse.

That leap made me look to another and much better-known Australian brumby film that came out ten years before this one, the classic The Man from Snowy River. I had to rent that, none of the streaming services has it at the moment, but I’m glad I did, because watching the two back to back was illuminating.

I strongly suspect that the makers of Snowy River knew Mitchell’s book and took inspiration from Thowra’s leap. The original text on which the film is based is a shortish narrative poem first published in 1890 by A.B. “Banjo” Patterson. Here we have the rich old man Harrison, the weedy little mountain man and his mountain horse, Clancy the great horseman, and the two sons of Old Regret. And we get the great leap down the mountain, and the mountain man bringing the whole herd (or mob as they say Down Under) back single-handed.

The film adds family drama, a love interest who makes feminist noises and then forgets every single one of them the minute she discovers boys, and an ongoing subplot about two different schools of horse training—the gentle and the cruel. It’s all about the humans, but brumbies drive the story. Harrison lost Old Regret’s first colt to the wild, and he grew into an epic antagonist, a wily old black stallion who has thwarted Harrison at every turn.

And not only Harrison. Jim Craig, the boy from Snowy River, loses both a prized mare and his father to the brumbies led by the stallion, and swears to get the mare back and avenge his father. By the time the call of the wild sucks in Old Regret’s last son, the colt “worth a thousand pound,” Jim is one of Harrison’s stockmen, has fallen in love with Harrison’s daughter, and has powerful incentive to challenge the stallion.

His descent from the cliff on the back of his mountain horse is rightfully celebrated among horse people everywhere. That is some riding.

There’s the fantasy The Man on the Black Horse is trying to live, but Thowra isn’t giving it to him and The Man doesn’t have either the skills or the terrain to do it. Jim faces off with the stallion and herds the whole mob back to Harrison’s station, peels off Bess (still wearing her halter around her neck) and the colt and promises to come back for the rest of his property—including, one presumes, the girl. This is male gaze all the way, but horseman’s gaze, too. It’s about taming the wild and winning what’s yours.

Looking at this, and then watching The Silver Brumby again, I felt as if the 1992 film was saying something about Snowy River. The latter is about man taming the wild Australian landscape. There’s nothing in it about the humans who were there when the white man arrived. It’s all white people and their tamed horses and the ones who got away. Women are love interests, trophies, and support staff. They talk about independence but it never comes to more than that.

In Silver Brumby, something different is going on. The rescued joey is meant to return to the wild. Indi wants to keep him, but Elyne is firm. He needs to go back to being free. What’s wild might get human help to survive—as Golden does when she foals—but then it gets to be wild again. Even if that means it has to die.

Or does it? The safest thing for something a man wants that badly may be to remove itself from his awareness—to appear to die, or to become invisible. But the women know. Like Thowra’s secret valley, there’s a secret space that women share, where the men can’t come. Where the wild stays wild, and nothing can possess it.

Being female in our culture is a process of ongoing restriction, of living like prey, of developing strategies for surviving in a world in which any miscalculation can have severe, sometimes fatal consequences. The beautiful blond Thowra lives the way we live (and to be honest, I think the horse who played him in the film was a lovely, substantial, charismatic mare; because I can see that The Brolga is played by a male, but Thowra is kind of…absent in that area), and makes choices we often have to make.

Horse girls know. Horses give us size and power well beyond our own, and teach us how to handle large, unpredictable, often dangerous animals. We learn patience and calm, and we also learn confidence.

That’s something Snowy River takes away from Jessica, but Elyne and Indi in the later film manage to take it back. Complete with running the station between them with minimal male assistance, doing auto maintenance, and totally getting it about what really happened to Thowra.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. She’s even written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.

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