I recently attended the Australian screening of the Banff Mountain Film Festival for 2016. As a rule, I found most of the films to be fairly disappointing, but none more so than the feature entry Unbranded. Despite what I consider to be an affront to modern outdoor culture, the film claimed the coveted People’s Choice Award at Banff in late 2015. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the choice of these people is (wait for it.….) total horseshit.
The brainchild of protagonist Ben Masters, Unbranded follows the journey of four Texan cowboys who embark on a trans-continental journey from the Mexico to Canada. During this journey, they utilise mustangs which have been adopted following their removal from BLM land. What follows is a flimsy attempt to “prove the worth” of these wild horses over the course of a five month odyssey.
Firstly, I must point out that I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an animal rights activist. I’m not a vegetarian or vegan, nor do I care much for the plight of introduced species. Let’s get something straight – mustangs are not “wild” horses, they are feral horses, descended from Spanish imports.
That said, I found many scenes in this film highly disturbing and difficult to watch. There was a huge amount of needless suffering inflicted upon these animals, from cactus barbs which took days to remove, to horses getting stuck on fences, to bone-shaking falls down rocky escarpments. One animal died of “natural causes” and only half completed the trek. My girlfriend was absolutely mortified and I myself found it disconcerting to say the least. When someone with the empathic capacity of a brick finds the footage disconcerting, it’s pretty fucking bad.
However, what concerns me far more than this isolated example of animal cruelty is the astonishing amount of support and the accolades which this film received. To me, Unbranded ran counter to every single value and ethic for which the outdoor community has stood for the greater part of a century.
Since the closure of the Second World War, attitudes have changed in response to land use and adventure. Gone is the pioneer mentality, the concept of man against nature. There is no sustainability to be found in this model, and the outdoor community (generally) does not heap praise on those who exploit the wilderness as a resource. The meteoric rise of Leave No Trace ethics is indicative of this, as is the emphasis on unsupported, human powered expeditions as the gold standard of adventure.
Unbranded is none of these things. The expedition relies on horsepower and is assisted by support crews. What’s more, it crosses the continent in 153 days. Considering the Pacific Crest Trail speed record currently sits at just under 61 days, I’d hardly call the Unbranded expedition ground-breaking. Banff and similar film festivals should be dedicated to expeditions which push the boundaries of human possibility and illuminate our virtues. Unbranded does neither of these things. Its premise is a complete anachronism, barely even noteworthy, let alone worthy of awards or even inclusion into a finals list in any mountain film festival.
On some levels, I feel that the protagonists of the film, and particularly Masters himself, genuinely care for the plight of mustangs as a whole. This comes into savage contrast when compared to the indifference they display toward animal welfare. The four men show total nonchalance as the animals thrash, stumble and die.
Perhaps more surprising, however, is the lifting of the thinnest of veils in which their apparently noble cause is contained. As the title cards espouse, the film’s purpose is to raise awareness and advocate for the adoption of mustangs. When one member of the foursome decides to end the journey 1 mile short of the finish line, group leader Masters is “absolutely furious”. To me, this belies the duplicity of his words and actions. The trip is less about the animals than it is about him and his ambitions. Any true adventurer can recognise that the journey itself is the reward. They know that that the finish line doesn’t matter, especially when the act of not crossing it is an act of will, not circumstance.
I initially found the overwhelming support for this film extremely perplexing. It would seem that the premise relies solely on the notion of recapturing the heady days of the Old West in the modern era. I believe that the popularity of the film lies entirely in this misguided sense of nostalgia, in the romance of an age gone by. There is certainly nothing else to recommend it to modern audiences.
Once again, tradition has proved to be nothing but a crutch. Just because something has been done a certain way in the past, that doesn’t make it right or just or admirable. Here are a few other American traditions that have gone by the wayside: slavery, lynchmobs and prohibition. It’s not just an American problem, however – one needs only to take a look at the grazing practices in the Australian alpine regions to realise that tradition and the identity that it enables can be hugely detrimental if left to carry on in a world in which they no longer belong.
I would invite everyone who voted for Unbranded as their “People’s Choice” to have a good, hard look at themselves, and a good, hard look at the practices they support. Let these films continue to embody all that is good about the outdoor culture in a world that has lost its way. Let them continue to be a celebration of what humans can do with their hands, their feet and their minds in a world dependant on animals and machines. Most of all, let them dispel the perils of conventional thinking in a world which desperately needs new ideas.
0 stars out of 5