When you see a documentary about a beautiful and breathtaking animal, and the film is built around that species facing a crisis of survival, the problem tends to be one of dwindling population. The bald eagle was once that creature (it’s now doing much better). More recently, there has been concern over the vastly diminished population of elephants in Africa.
“The Mustangs: America’s Wild Horses” presents us with a different sort of problem. It’s a friendly, lyrical, and stirring documentary about the horses that still roam the Western wilds of the United states — a phenomenon a lot of people don’t even know about. David Phillips, the award-winning New York Times journalist, is interviewed in the film, and he says that when people ask him about his 2017 book “Wild Horse Country,” 90 percent of them are surprised to learn that wild horses still exist. That’s because these horses seem like something from the mythic past. And, of course they look like something from the mythic past. The documentary is full of sublime and reverent images of mustangs, all different colors (brown, white gray, black), galloping through the hearty landscapes of places like Wyoming, where they’re a wondrous sight to behold.
Here’s the problem — and at first, it doesn’t sound like an insurmountable one: There are too many mustangs. Far too many of them. Right now, the estimate is that there are close to 80,000 wild horses living on federal lands in the U.S. If you want to know why that’s a problem, it’s simple: Mustangs have no natural predators, so when left on their own, their population will tend to double every four to five years. But once the wild horse population reaches a critical mass (it could be 100,000 to 200,000, or maybe 300,000), they will consume and exhaust all the natural resources around them (i.e., the vegetation they feed on), and there’ll be nothing left. They will start to die out. Simple — and terrible — as that.
“The Mustangs,” directed by Steven Latham and Conrad Stanley (with Gerry Byrne, the Vice-Chairman of PMC, as one of its co-producers), is bathed in an alluring romanticism about the place occupied by mustangs in the American past and in American mythology. We see old paintings of the first people to capture and ride them, who were Native Americans. We see paintings and photographs of the cowboy culture of the 1800s. The first American settlers encountered mustangs in herds they described as being as thick as ocean waves (it would take hours to ride through them). And the film shows us how the legend of the wild horse came to life through poster images of Buffalo Bill and dime novels, radio and “The Lone Ranger” — a hero who rides a wild horse he rescued. That iconic image of the Lone Ranger, his white steed kicking its front legs high up into the air, symbolizes the idea that, as one observer puts it, “The wild horse still couldn’t be conquered. But it would submit to a person who was true of heart.”
We also see the famous clip of Marilyn Monroe, standing on a desert plain, tearfully trying to stop Clark Gable from roping a wild horse in “The Misfits.” That film was made in 1961, and it arrived at a moment when the wild horse population was down to around 10,000. It had been dwindling for decades, going back to the period after World War I, when the horses were suddenly no longer needed for transportation. Starting in the ’20s, the horse market in the U.S. collapsed, and the horses were turned into dog food, slaughtered and packaged by Ken-L-Ration, a brand recommended by Rin Tin Tin on all his radio shows. By the ’60s, the mustangs were regarded as relics of a bygone era.
They were saved by one individual: Velma Johnston, a chain-smoking secretary who became known as Wild Horse Annie, “the Gandhi of the wild horse movement.” She knew it would be a terrible thing to lose these creatures, so she started a crusade, which became a children’s crusade, organized by schools. That might not sound like the most powerful of lobbying forces, but the fight to save the mustang caught the imagination of young people. It culminated in the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, a law that made killing a wild horse a federal crime. President Nixon embraced it, and so did just about everyone in Congress.
Once that happened, though, the population growth of mustangs had to be contained, a job that fell to the Bureau of Land Management, which has struggled with the issue for decades, to no one’s satisfaction. But “The Mustangs” offers the beginning of a solution to the wild-horse population problem. It lies in darting them with a vaccine that inhibits fertilization, a task that falls, as of now, to a team of volunteers, most of them women, who roam the plains equipped with dart guns, shooting at the fillies from 40 feet away. The darts do not hurt; but they control population growth — which, for these animals, has become essential.
Where “The Mustangs” becomes most moving, and takes us closest to the horses’ hearts, is in the section devoted to Operation Wild Horse, located on 10 acres in Bull Valley, Ill., where a community of veterans and military families come together to experience the healing power of mustangs. Jim Welch, who runs Operation Wild Horse, talks about the horses’ ability to rehabilitate veterans who are grappling with PTSD and, in some cases, wrestling with thoughts of suicide. “Mustangs,” he says, “can look into your soul.” And ease it. We see veterans of Vietnam and Iraq as they ride horses and commune with them; at moments, we can almost touch the majesty of the horses’ healing spirit. But the therapeutic communion works both ways. The most haunting comment in the film comes from a veteran who says, “Mustangs have been through what we have.” It’s true: The horses are warriors and survivors, with a serenity touched by empathy. In “The Mustangs,” they’re human whisperers.