Touching Wild Horses. 2002. Produced by Chesler/Perlmutter Productions Inc., ApolloMedia GmbH & Co., 5 Filmproduktion KG, Grosvenor Park Productions UK Limited. Directed by Eleanore Lindo, and starring Jane Seymour, Charles Martin Smith and Mark Rendall. 90 minutes. Available as DVD.

Touching Wild Horses is a film that insults the intellect, the heart, and common sense.  The Salt Lake Tribune calls it “family-friendly…with a noble heart,” according to one of the publicity blurbs on the DVD cover. If you would like your children to learn nothing real about Sable Island; agree that a woman who works as a dedicated scientist in a unique, remote ecosystem must be a ruined misanthrope; think that a child can overcome such setbacks as the deaths of an abusive father and younger sister, and the critical illness of a mother, through harsh truisms and homework; then this is the “family-friendly” flick for you.

12-year-old Mark (Mark Rendall) is removed to Sable Island to live with his sole relative, his Aunt Fiona (Jane Seymour), after the deaths of his father and sister in a car accident that has also put his mother in a coma. Fiona greets this traumatized child with vicious coldness and cliché: “every living thing dies,” “at least they didn’t suffer,” “complaining won’t help,” and oh, yes, “life’s not fair.”  Ah, but there’s a reason for this almost insane ugliness. Fiona, we later learn, in what actually is one of the better bits of acting in the film, had a baby “out of wedlock,” a baby she had to give up to adoption.

Oh, of course. What else but a heartbreaking trauma would lead a woman to become a scientist?  And what a strange scientist—though she apparently has written scores of books, we see her do nothing in the course of the film but cut open one dead fish, and take photo after photo of the wild horses of Sable, a fatuous smile curving the same mouth that flays her young nephew. Formerly a teacher, Fiona sets Mark a rigid study schedule that involves a test every day—a test he consistently fails or completes poorly—the pitiful marks of which she posts on the calendar. This agrees with Mark, it seems (can you say Stockholm Syndrome?), since his marks improve, and he seems remarkably content, despite some repetitive nightmares.

Then the plot thickens. Against the express command of his aunt (“Rule number three: don’t touch the wild horses”), Mark rescues a foal whose mother has drowned. This rebellion is miraculously forgiven by a Fiona who is softening through the womanly business of parenting, it appears, and the foal ends up sleeping in the house like a puppy. When their interference with nature is discovered by the station meteorologist (Charles Martin Smith), the only other adult on Sable, and with whom Fiona has a nasty running battle, he orders them off the island to face criminal charges. “Chuckie,” the meteorologist, is yet another unpleasant soul, one who stays on the island only because, the script ridiculously asserts, great treasure is to be found in the shifting sands of Sable, treasure that can be sold for big bucks on the mainland. Mark saves the day by offering a trade with Chuckie: Fiona’s place on Sable for a laughably unbelievable piece of treasure trove that Fiona has given Mark for his birthday—a centuries-old pistol in perfect condition.

But Fiona chooses to leave Sable, anyway. She has seen the light. Science is not for her. She has rediscovered real worth, realizes her life on Sable has been empty and meaningless. The gun reverts to Mark. Mark’s mother arrives by plane, limping on crutches, and all’s well that ends well.

But then there’s more!  A grown-up Mark tells us Fiona became a teacher again on the mainland, and traveled. Much more worthwhile. Her reward: she met her lost son, after which, entirely redeemed, she died of cancer, and we watch as Mark scatters her ashes on Sable (though why, we wonder, as she discarded her life there so casually), while the foal, now a domestic gelding with a badly painted white blaze on his forehead, nods in approval.

So the script is cliché ridden and utterly predictable—what about the cinematography?  “Incredible cinematography…touching story…delightful!” says the Bermuda Sun, again according to the DVD cover. I found the cinematography as full of cliché as the script. Sunset after sunset, dissolve after dissolve, dream sequence after dream sequence, blue gel after blue gel, silhouette after silhouette: I was heartily glad the film is short (90 minutes). Of course the scenery is pretty, but it’s not the scenery of Sable Island. There are trees!  “Where are we going?” Mark asks Fiona, early in the film. The answer should have been “The Bay of Quinte.”  Shot on location in Sandbanks Provincial Park, Ontario, there is little effort to reflect the unique setting of Sable Island in the film. There is a windmill out behind the outhouse, attached to no water source or battery (perhaps it magically regulates the chest freezer into which Fiona puts the one dead fish she eviscerates); Fiona’s camp is set close to the beach—a hardy choice on an island of dramatically shifting coastline; the “untouchable” horses have tidy manes and cropped tails, and eat hay. Why would anyone would set a movie on Sable Island and do so little research into the reality of that remarkable place? Simply, Sable Island was used in an attempt to make money, used with absolutely no respect for its uniqueness, used with no concern for its vulnerability, and I for one resent it.

And the acting? Given the absurdities of the script, it is not abysmal. Mark Rendall was nominated in 2003 by Young Artist Awards for best performance in a feature film by a leading young actor, and I can see why. He has some strong moments, which are to his credit, and to the credit of the director, Eleanor Lindo, and his co-star, Jane Seymour. Strong acting rarely takes place in a vacuum. Jane Seymour is weaker, but also has her moments. The real problem with the acting is the unbelievable nature of both actors’ responses in the given situation.

Eleanor Lindo won the Heartland Film Festival’s “Crystal Heart Award” for her direction. I understand that, too. As they say on their Website, “The Heartland Film Festival was founded in 1991 to positively effect change in the film industry…‘to recognize and honor filmmakers whose work explores the human journey by artistically expressing hope and respect for the positive values of life.’”  This is the type of movie that reinforces the idea that the sexes have specific roles, that “tough love” is best for children, that there are no unmanageable problems.

I have one final concern: the government of Canada helped fund this movie. Somewhere in our bureaucracy that decides the fate of funding to support a human presence on Sable Island, are there people who watched this film, and because of it believe that the humans on Sable are either robbing the beaches of treasure for their own gain or are dysfunctional, weird misanthropes?

The creators of this movie owe a weighty apology to Sable Island and its inhabitants.

Prepared for the Sable Island Green Horse Society By Janet Barkhouse, April 2007 ©