Judge Clark Douglas is too heartbroken to tell jokes. Oh, the sorrows of this cruel world.
An underappreciated classic.
French photographer-turned-director Albert Lamorisse is best known for two beautiful short films for children made in the 1950s. The first is the enchanting The Red Balloon, a classic that is treasured by nearly everyone who has seen it. The Red Balloon is frequently named among the greatest children's films of all time and has a universal appeal that has given it fans all over the world. The other film is White Mane, which has always seemed like the less successful sibling of The Red Balloon. Many acknowledge that White Mane is a great film, but praise for the movie is often merely a footnote in a speech of praise for The Red Balloon. I would like to take just a few brief moments to set the record straight on this matter, and attempt to place White Mane in its own place of distinction.
Facts of the Case
The story is simple, spare, and touching. The narrator (Jean-Pierre Grenier) introduces us to White Mane, a proud wild horse who refuses to be captured or controlled by men. A group of local men have been angrily pursuing White Mane for a long time, determined to "prove to him that men are the most powerful of all." Meanwhile, a young boy (Alain Emery) dreams not of dominating this beautiful horse, but of befriending it. Through sheer determination, the boy wins the trust of the horse. For a brief moment, both the horse and the child have reached a place of joy, granting each other mutual friendship and freedom. Such happiness can not last long, however. The world this boy lives in is not a place that will permit such a friendship.
What a remarkable film this is. Not a scene is wasted, and Lamorisse packs more moments of beauty and revelation into this 40-minute film that most films can manage over much longer running times. White Mane is a film of deep sadness, and the ending is just about the most depressing scenario you could possibly imagine. Despite this, the film is also quite romantic and very affecting, which make it feel quite a lot like a predecessor to films of a similar nature in the Spanish horror genre. If you've seen such recent films as The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth, and The Orphanage, know that White Mane is likely to inspire a very similar emotional reaction from you. Those films and White Mane are quite different in style; for one thing, there are no supernatural/fantasy elements involved in this story. Emotionally and thematically, however, there are a lot of similarities.
There are two worlds at play in White Mane, the world of men and the world of the child. In the world of men, we are not in a wonderful place. It is a world of greed, of violence, and of poverty. The child does not see the world this way. He sees a world of beauty and mystery, a place where almost anything is possible, even the idea that he could befriend the most wild and violent horse anyone has ever seen. The young boy is a figure of great resilience, a character that will do anything that he is required to do in order to achieve his dreams. This is most powerfully illustrated in a scene in which the boy throws a lasso around the neck of the horse. The horse is startled and charges off, but the boy hangs on to the rope. As the child is dragged through mud and water, he continues to hang on. The body of this young child continues to hold on, even when his mind is beginning to lose consciousness. Finally, the horse stops and looks behind him at the small, worn-out child covered in mud. The boy looks back, and a deep connection is made between the two free spirits.
This and other powerful images are captured remarkably by Edmond Sechan (who also photographed The Red Balloon). In the confines of this short story, Sechan and Lamorisse find time for images of great beauty (in black and white, as opposed to the vibrant color of The Red Balloon): the scene of the boy's young sibling mimicking the movement of a turtle that waddles by; the violent and disturbing scene in which White Mane battles and bites another horse in an equine power struggle; the brief dream sequence in which the boy imagines himself and White Mane wandering through the desert together. Also, of course, there is the haunting (I don't use that word lightly) final image that simultaneously suggests feelings of horror, sadness, optimism, and reflection.
Now, you may be wondering whether or not White Mane is an appropriate film for children. I'm going to stick my neck on the chopping block for a moment and say "yes." I realize that there are elements of death and violence in the film (though in a mostly non-graphic manner), and I know that the story could be fairly labeled "disturbing." However, I don't think we give children enough credit these days. Many children are far more capable of dealing with complex emotional issues than adults give them credit for. Entertainment has begun to treat children in an increasingly condescending manner in the past couple of decades, removing elements of fright or sadness until everything becomes generic. If Old Yeller were made today, the film would likely end with the title character receiving miracle surgery to cure him of his ailment. I humbly submit that children could appreciate White Mane, because the sad story is told in such a gentle and accessible way.
The film has been given a superb transfer by Janus Films and Criterion and looks just superb from start to finish. There are very few scratches or elements of damage, and there are no problems in terms of grain, either. The only minor thing I would point out is that a couple of scenes do seem just a tad too bright. The mono sound is effective enough, spotlighting the tender score by Maurice Leroux. In terms of extras, the only significant one is the option to hear English narration by Peter Strauss. This is actually a very good feature, as it will permit children who may not be able to keep up with the subtitles to understand the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are essentially no special features; a commentary or documentary would have been greatly appreciated. However, Janus Films and The Criterion Collection have opted to give this and The Red Balloon bare bones releases in order to provide them to viewers at very affordable prices (full retail is fifteen bucks, you can find them even cheaper in many places). I appreciate that, so this really isn't an issue. Still, I personally would have been willing to pay more money for a features-packed release.
A superb film for viewers of all ages. Recommended without hesitation, a must-see.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Janus Films
• New English Narration Spoken by Peter Strauss
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