Friday, March 27, 2009

Into the West

Into the West (1992) is a family movie about two children and a horse, with beautiful Irish scenery, exciting chases, heartwarming family scenes, and some very funny bits as well. Gabriel Byrne plays an Irish widower with two boys. He is a Traveller or Tinker, part of a nomadic group which is similar in some ways to the Gypsies or Romany, but not the same. However, out of grief at the death of his wife, he has left that culture and he and the boys live in a housing project in Dublin, where he cobbles together a meagre living fixing cars. The boys' maternal grandfather arrives in his traditional caravan leading a beautiful white stallion and we see that the younger boy has "the gift" of calming horses. At his campfire, the grandfather tells the children the story of Oisin and the land of Tir nanOg; the boys name the horse Tir nanOg and attempt to keep it in their flat. Other residents complain and the horse is confiscated. When Byrne (Papa Reilly) goes to redeem it, he's told it's already been sold. The boys search for the horse and then see it on television -- it's now being used as a show jumper. They manage to retrieve it (of course this is perceived as stealing by the owner and police, but we have seen that the sale was illegal in the first place). Then the real adventure begins as the boys take off to "the West" on the horse with all the resources of the police and the rich "owner" after them. Papa Reilly also goes looking for them and enlists the help of his old Traveller community. There's a lot of excitement until the ending.

This film reminded me strongly of The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), which was based on a children's book called The Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry. (A book published in 1959 which will now set you back a cool $300 or more.) Given how long it takes to make a movie, as well as the many differences between the films, I don't think John Sayles was necessarily influenced by the earlier film; but they do have some similar themes and if you like one, you'll probably enjoy the other. I would probably not show either of these to children younger than 8 or 9, partly because of some minimal violence and profanity, but mostly because the Irish accents might make it hard for younger kids to understand. Both films make excellent use of Celtic myths, and Into the West, in particular, offers good opportunities for family discussions about prejudice as everyone seems to be able to recognize the Reillys as Travellers and there are many instances where they suffer for it. Highly recommended!

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