Mustang Country

Director: John C. Champion 
Joel McCrea, Robert Fuller, Patrick Wayne

One of the many things that I have learned since becoming a movie critic over ten years ago is that there is no such thing as the perfect movie. There do seem to be a few certain movies that everyone hates; the reaction to the movie Titanic: The Animated Movie has been strongly negative from everybody I have heard opinions from, whether these people happen to be a professional critic or an ordinary viewer. But I have yet to come across a movie that is loved by absolutely everyone. (I've even come across negative opinions on movies like Toy Story 2 and The Wizard Of Oz.) There are many reason for that. One of these reasons can be the general reaction to a genre. I'll give you an example, that example being the reaction of typical people to the western genre. First, before I look at the negative side of this coin, take a look at adults' view of the genre, and you will find that there are many adults who are welcoming to the idea of watching a western. Why is this? Well, there are several reasons. With older adults, a lot of them have rosy memories of being entertained on TV and in movie theaters as kids by the antics of people like Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry. So some nostalgia plays into this. But there are other reasons why many adults like westerns. Some adults like westerns because the often harsh and violent worlds of western stories promise a lot of action. Some adults like how the situations of westerns are set up, with the good guys being real good and the bad guys being real bad - no grey areas. Other adults like things such as the scenery of these movies, taking place in majestic desert backdrops and other breathtaking locations.

Although the western may not be as popular as it once was, it still has a loyal fanbase among many adults, which explains why there is still western entertainment to be had, from western paperbacks to western cable channels. Let me emphasis that avenues such as those are seized by mature adults. When it comes to the rest of the population - young children, teenagers, and young adults - there is very little attraction by them to westerns. I once remember reading an account of a high school teacher who taught classic films to teenagers, and recounting that while her teenage students were accepting of many different kinds of classic movies, they hated westerns, no matter what westerns the teacher showed in class. Stuff like this begs the question as to why young people hate westerns so much. I hate to admit it, but I was one of those haters when I was growing up and before my film tastes matured. Looking back at my youth, plus recalling what I've observed from young people over the years, I have some possible answers. One reason may be that westerns deal with a time over a hundred years ago. Perhaps modern young people just can't relate to the various concerns and problems people had in the days of the wild west. Another reason may be is that while today's kids are growing up, they are not seeing any western entertainment aimed at them. You don't see the likes of Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon. A third reason might be that westerns are not usually made in the flashy style you see in music videos or kiddie shows - westerns look "old fashioned" to kids in comparison.

Apart from a few exceptions like the Young Guns movies, there haven't been that many attempts in more modern years to try and court young people to the western genre. Which leads me to the movie I am reviewing here, Mustang Country. Made just a few years after the western started fading from theaters, it was obviously made to court as wide an audience as Mustang Countrypossible. For starters, the filmmakers cast cowboy actor Joel McCrea in the lead role, in an obvious attempt to court adult viewers who had enjoyed him in westerns years earlier like Ride The High Country. To court kids, McCrea was partnered up with a youth (Nika Mina, in his only screen credit). And since family movies taking place in the wilderness were all the rage in the 1970s, the movie takes place not in the desert, but in the part of the Rocky Mountains (the movie was shot in Banff National Park in Canada) that crosses the border between Alberta and Montana. It is the year 1925, and former sheep rancher Dan (McCrea) has left his daughter and her family and entered the wilderness with only his horse Rosie and dog Luke for company. He is after a black mustang that somehow escaped from the annual roundup, and there is a $500 reward for anyone who captures the horse. During his travels, Dan comes across an Indian youth named Nika (Mina), who has escaped from Indian school and is hiking across country to his grandfather. However, when the two reach the Indian village, they discover that Nika's grandfather has just passed away. Needing money to support his grandmother, Nika makes a deal with Dan - they will spend a week together tracking down the mustang, and they will split the reward if they should capture it. But they find out quickly that the mustang is a cunning target, and even working together might not be enough to make it possible to capture it.

The majority of Mustang Country's running time is devoted to these two characters tracking down the horse. In fact, except for a couple of brief cameos by actors Robert Fuller (Wagon Train) and Patrick Wayne (Sinbad And The Eye Of The Tiger), as two other individuals searching for that elusive mustang, there are no other characters seen in the movie (at least that have any real dialogue.) So the filmmakers behind this movie had an additional challenge on their hands, not only trying to sell a western-themed movie to a youthful audience, but sticking the movie two characters alone with nothing but wilderness around them. How are the end results then? Well, I'll start by looking at this movie with the eyes of a youth. If I had seen this movie as a youth, I am pretty sure I would have felt entertained by what I saw. Part of that reason would have been because of the presence of a youth in the movie, a character that has a major role in what goes on during the 79 minute running time. But it's not just that there's a youth in the movie, but also because this character has been constructed in a way that young people will find appealing. I will admit that first time (and last time) actor Nika Mina is sometimes a little stiff in the role of the Indian youth - there are times where he has problems showing emotion. But most of the time he does an acceptable job. He gives his character a curiosity that seems natural and not overdone. He has dreams and ambitions, but he is not one who is shouting them out. In short, he comes across as a typical boy, one probably not far from what we were like as youths. I think most kids will appreciate seeing someone who is very close to how they are.

The appeal of Mustang Country to kids extends beyond Mina's appealing performance. I am confident that kids will also find appealing how his character has been written. Nika has been written to have a good amount of smarts. No, he isn't written to be constantly right about everything, which would turn off even kids, but he is shown to be smart enough to survive in the wilderness alone, as well as later coming up with some good ideas as he and Dan track the mustang. The screenplay likes this character, enough that the character of Dan can't help but find him an appealing sidekick. Dan never talks down to Nika, and while he does occasionally act as a parent (like the time when he asks Nika if he thinks running away from Indian school was a good idea), most of the time he treats Nika as if he were an adult. ("I gave up telling people what to do a long time ago," Dan tells Nika at one point.) This generates some appealing chemistry between the two characters throughout the movie. But the character of Dan also shines on his own, enough that kids will also like this character. McCrea was in his 70s when this movie was made, coming out of retirement to star in just one more movie. Although he was already senior citizen age when filming started, he doesn't show any signs of slowing down from the speed when he made films at a younger age. He walks around briskly, rides a horse with no effort at all, and even rolls around in the mud when things get dirty. I think even kids will be impressed by this energy and determination, and it will give them the message that even when you get to be old, there's still a lot that you'll be able to do.

There's a lot more in the movie that will be appealing to kids. There are some good heart-pounding sequences as Dan pursues the mustang alone, and then later with Nika. Also, there is gorgeous scenery in the background that starts right at the beginning and never lets up before the end. Adults will also find the scenery fantastic, even if they think they've seen it all before in other movies. While I'm on the subject of adults, I might as well answer the question as to if adults will find Mustang Country as pleasing overall as their kids will find it. I think they will, partially because of the reasons I've stated, but also on other levels as well. Adults will appreciate the movie's message that hard work results in rewards (and also appreciate that it's also being taught to the kids who watch this movie.) That's not to say that adults won't find fault with the movie. Unlike the kids who watch this movie, adults will probably find the occasional cuts to animals Dan and Nika encounter in the wilderness unnecessary padding, and they will roll their eyes a few times at such stuff as when Dan tells Nika about a certain vicious grizzly bear he tangled with in the past (of course, the two encounter that same bear later in the movie.) However, there is one plot twist in the movie that will be a pleasant surprise to adults. (SPOILER ALERT) It goes without saying that Dan and Nika do manage to catch the wild mustang near the end in the movie. When they have their hands on this magnificent creature that was once wild and free, guess what they ultimately decide to do with it? No, what you are thinking does not happen! As it turns out, the almighty dollar is often the most important thing of all, a lesson I think even your kids know and will make them feel with you that this ending is an extremely realistic one for a change.

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: The Earthling, The Golden Seal, Local Boys