The Silver Brumby: a subdued and unexciting film of human greed and obsession

John Tatoulis, “The Silver Brumby” (1993)

Notable mainly for featuring a very young Russell Crowe near the beginning of his acting career, this film is framed as a story within a story about the relationship between Australian writer Elyne Mitchell (Caroline Goodall) and her daughter Indi (Amiel Daemion), and how Indi learns through listening to Mum and reading her work about the natural world they live in – the world of the Snowy Mountains in the New South Wales / Victorian border region – and the animals that live there and which must contend with the encroachment of humans into their territory. The animals that dominate Elyne Mitchell’s writing are brumbies (feral horses) and in particular, one brumby called Thowra, the eponymous silver brumby who through the series of children’s books, starting with “The Silver Brumby”, founds a dynasty of wild silver horses who become the envy and targets of obsession of the humans living and working in the Snowy Mountains area. What initially starts as an entirely fictional work – the life of Thowra and the pursuit of this silver stallion by someone known only as The Man (Russell Crowe) – takes on a more realistic edge for Indi as she discovers that The Man is based on people she and her Mum know. From then on, as The Man recruits another to assist him to chase down and capture Thowra, Indi and her mother share the same fears that Thowra will lose his freedom, independence and most of all his spirit if his cunning, knowledge and experience of the bush, speed and endurance cannot save him from capture. Inevitably though, the horse ends up being cornered by the humans pursuing him and must risk his life to avoid capture.

The film adopts a subdued approach which highlights the beauty and mystery of the natural environment but does no favours to the original book on which it is based. The significant events of Thowra’s life – his early upbringing, the defeat and death of his sire by upstart stallion The Brolga, and his own challenge to the Brolga when he is full-grown – are dealt with almost as incidental to Thowra’s eventual confrontation with The Man. There is not a great deal about how Thowra gathers together the mares that make up his harem and how he defends them from other stallions and the humans that hunt the Snowy Mountain brumbies. Equally, there is not a lot about how writing “The Silver Brumby” and sharing the story with Indi allow Elyne Mitchell and her daughter to forge a deeper relationship with each other than they might otherwise have had, and how Indi matures and learns about how human greed and obsession not only destroy individual animals and Nature generally, but also diminish humans, isolate them from their roots in Nature and end up destroying them.

The scenery is beautiful and poetic but that is all that can be really said for the film. While the actors do their best, their characters are very underdeveloped and Crowe is given some very laughably poor lines to deliver. The horses used in the film are very good-looking and well-groomed – real brumbies would be scrawny creatures and have a raw edge to them – and perform quite adequately but the sense of grit and living on the edge in a difficult environment (for humans and horses, be they both tame or wild) is absent. This viewer has the impression that the original intentions behind the film were very ambitious but, unlike Thowra who gives everything he has and risks everything – even his life – to preserve his freedom and spirit, the film definitely pulls its punches. What we have is a film that fails to generate much excitement or a sense of danger, and which also does little to suggest that the humans in the film could live with brumbies and Australian fauna and flora in the Snowy Mountains region instead of trying to master and dominate them all.

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