By Maddy Butcher
Every tax-paying American should know more about the mustang crisis and the exquisite, yet threatened wilderness of the western U.S.
- speak to scores of stakeholders
- read volumes of documents
- travel to wilderness spots and Bureau of Land Management facilities.
Or, you can watch Unbranded, the soon-to-be released documentary feature film of the 3,000-mile journey by four Texans and their adopted wild horses, from the Mexican to Canadian borders. Check out our library of Unbranded content.
The film, whittled down to a remarkable 105 minutes from about 500 hours of footage, takes you on an adventure “for crazy people” notes Ben Thamer, one of the four Texas A & M University graduates who signed on. The trek is one of calamities, horse and human injury, wildfires, lost horses, beer chugging, testosterone flexing, and death.
Along the way, it treats you to a stunning overview of public lands and schools you with the fairest film presentation yet of the
mustang situation. Read more on mustangs here.
Think of it as a gateway drug to your craving to learn more about these essential concerns of the western U.S.
Watch it. Then, learn more about mustangs (whose care costs taxpayers $75 million annually), and pick up a copy of Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, and Beyond the 100th Meridian by Wallace Stegner.
Unbranded, the brainchild of Ben Masters, directed by Phill Baribeau, succeeds because of what it isn’t as well as what it is.
- It isn’t another bleeding-heart, docu-drama about those beautiful, suffering American icons (wild horses).
- It doesn’t take one polarizing viewpoint.
- It doesn’t turn into a mud-slinging, reality-TV episode as tensions erupt and friendships fray.
Unbranded succeeds because it skims those territories but never gets mired down in them.
In one of the opening scenes, Ben Masters explains how he dreamed up this adventure coverage as a way to help the mustang cause and draw attention to the need for conservation and preservation.
“We have a lot in common,” he says. “There’s not enough room for them and there’s not enough room for us.”
Soaking up Unbranded’s stunning panoramic and fly-over shots of the Grand Canyon, the Skyline Trail, the Bridger Teton range, and Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, it’d be easy to think otherwise. There are, after all 600 million acres of public land.
But when the camera and film’s narrative thread hone their focus, it’s not as pretty:
- Lands overgrazed by cattle and wild horses
- Lands cut off by highways, train tracks, and fences.
- Lands opened to motorized vehicles (a dirt biker spooks half the herd, sending team members on a two-day, 40-mile search to round them up.)
In one of many poignant moments, we see Masters making a satellite phone call to the owner of Salina Canyon Ranch in central Utah. He stands at the ranch’s fenced border, politely asking permission to cross through a quarter mile of the privately-held land. The then 24-year old, looking shaggy, stinky, and spent, shakes his head in frustration and disappointment.
They will have to go around, adding “a 2,000 foot elevation gain and half-a-day’s travel,” says Masters. “This is the perfect example of public/private land in the west. You have this beautiful, nice valley that’s private. Then steep hillsides and cliff faces that are public.”
Those 600 million acres of public land? They are mostly “gnarly places,” says Masters.
Despite the serious theme, there are plenty of light moments. Heck, the opening sequence is how NOT to start a 3,000 mile trip:
- Get kicked in the face whilst trying to remove cactus from your horse’s lips
- Watch another horse buck and buck and buck and buck off into the sunset.
When I interviewed them last year, Masters and producer Dennis Aig warned me that the burro, adopted by Ben Thamer midway through the trip, steals the show.
- Watch her now as she vociferously announces her arrival.
- Watch Thamer bond and assume he’s got her figured out. “Take that, Buck Brannaman! I’m a Donkey Whisperer.”
- Watch Donquita beg to differ.
By the end, it’s safe to say the burro has stolen everyone’s heart with her fiercely protective spirit, comedic behavior, and all around lovability.
The film’s editor Scott Chestnut offers up a cinematic golden nugget as we watch one of the film’s few quiet moments: Masters fly-fishing while a lightning storm approaches. We learn how became hooked as a boy, how he skipped school to fish more. In dying light, Masters catches a big, beautiful Cutthroat trout and releases it, saying, “See ya, buddy.”
He continues in a voice-over: “There’s a lot of work to be done to make sure the wild lands of America have a viable future. The opportunities we have are just unbelievable. I don’t think most people understand that.”
Easterners – who cherish this open space they, themselves squandered generations ago – have been singing this tune for a while. But now, this awe-inspiring story of four Texas boys is helping to put a new face on conservation and mustang advocacy.