Cowboy… for most people, the term conjures images of a distant and mythical West, of dusty Main Streets, saloons, lonely campfires, and six-shooters. For some, the word is a job, a vocation, a way of life that has endured for centuries and persists even in the era of cell phones, iPods, and Twitter.
Originally filmed for IMAX, Ride Around the World traces the history of the cowboy culture across centuries and borders from sixth century Morocco to modern day Texas and British Columbia. Stunning footage captures the grace and power of the horse, and the grandeur of the working ranges of global cowboys.
As with most IMAX productions, the gorgeous cinematography will be the draw for most viewers. As someone who works regularly with “real” cowboys, I was somewhat put off by the romanticized image of cowboy culture. The rewards of ranch life – open range, a life lived with the seasons, independence, partnership with an incredible athlete – are portrayed fully. However, the gritty realities of the intense physical labor, dirt, long hours, harsh climates, and risk that those who work cattle face daily were glossed over. In a world where fewer and fewer people connect to the origins of their meals, a documentary that downplays the efforts of those who raise our food does a disservice to society.
An early scene set on the legendary Four Sixes Ranch in Texas shows the start of a cattle drive. The scene ends with two of the cowboys racing their horses out across the plain. At this point, a friend who worked beef cattle throughout her teens and twenties and I looked at each other and simultaneously rolled our eyes. No cowboy is likely to exhaust or risk injury to his horse by galloping across open ground at the beginning of what will be a long day. He or she will need the strength, stamina, and agility of that horse for the real work.
However, once the movie progressed beyond this obviously staged scene, we were captivated. Ride Around the World skillfully charts the evolution of the modern Western cowboy from the mounted Berber warriors of medieval Morocco to the gauchos of Spain across the Atlantic to the vaqueros of Mexico, Argentina, and Chile. The Mexican vaqueros followed the herds of wild cattle north into the land that would become Texas. From Texas, cowboys spread to the west and north.
The tack, techniques, and even equine bloodlines that are so familiar today trace back 1500 years to Morocco. The Moroccan Barb horse, a type commonly referred to as the Arabian, provided the seed stock for most domestic light or riding horses. The short coupling, strong muscling, agility, and intelligence of the Barb are reflected in the speed, agility, and “cow sense” of the modern American Quarter Horse. The common terms for western tack and equipment — spurs, lariat, and chaps — were borrowed from the Mexican vaqueros.
In addition to following the temporal evolution of cowboy culture, Ride Around the World shows the vibrance of this culture in the modern world. Again, I do feel that the movie would have been stronger had it depicted the threats placed upon this way of life by modern development and society.
The DVD special features include a “making of” documentary and a trivia quiz. Trailers for similar IMAX features are also included on this menu. The “making of” feature appears to have originally aired on the television program America’s HQRSE produced in association with the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA). The feature has some good information and wonderful interviews with the ranch hands of the Four Sixes. However, the piece appears to have been pulled in its entirety from the television feature even down to obvious breaks for commercials and repeated sponsorship announcements. While it is probable that there were contract issues that necessitated this direct transfer, the feature would have been much cleaner had the breaks been edited and the sponsorship announcements concentrated at the beginning or end of the feature. The trivia game is a simple multiple choice game that amused my children.
Ultimately Ride Around the World is a visually compelling, captivating film that will draw those interested in broad landscapes, horses, or history. Whether it is worth the $19.98 suggested retail price for DVD will depend on the intensity of those interests. Ride Around the World releases on DVD and Blu-ray on December 1, 2009.