Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West 2023 Movie Review
While making her 2020 film, Black Beauty, in the Onaqui Mountains of Utah, director Ashley Avis became aware of the startling way wild horses were being managed (or mismanaged) in places across the Western United States. Out of this awareness grew action, resulting in her startling documentary Wild Beauty: Mustang Spirit of the West. The film captures the beauty and the disparate plight of these extraordinary creatures. The grand irony is that they should be protected by the entities that may cause their extinction, the Federal Government’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and conspiring private organizations.
Much of the documentary takes place near the Pryor Mountains of Montana, and the Onaqui Mountains of Utah, where the wild mustangs featured in Avis’ narrative film, Black Beauty, ran free for centuries. Indeed, one of the first misnomers that the documentary corrects is that horses are not native to North America – they are. Though, they were re-introduced after a near extinction. Another is that the Bureau of Land Management, which is charged with maintaining and protecting the wild horses that roam BLM land, does that. What the BLM does (or contracts to have done) is to track the wild horses with helicopters, herd them into pins, separate Mares from foals, and move them willy-nilly and/or sell them to fates that include becoming food and textiles. During this process, horses often die or are otherwise killed. All this is every bit as awful as it sounds, and Avis, with her small crew of intrepid filmmakers, documents all it, often while under threat from dubious private or government security agents acting to prevent them from filming the most disturbing aspects of what the BLM considers “…necessary herd culling…” to prevent starvation and disease. This is while we watch healthy and fit wild horses chased by men in helicopters until they drop, and sometimes die.
Avis’ film is constructed with footage of these animals in their natural environments (breathtaking always) and interviews with activists concerned with the fate of wild horses. Protagonists include environmental and animal activists and local and national politicians concerned with the BLM’s actions; antagonists include the BLM, corporate farms, and other private concerns. The film is strictly advocacy. It has a point of view and is wholly in favor of protecting the wild mustangs that live on these lands belonging to every American. Indeed, these wild horses belong to every single American, and what happens to them is ultimately each of our responsibilities, whether we know it or not – now we know.