"White Mane:" A Lesson in Practical Nuance

On a practical level, the polarization of American politics makes a lot of sense.

By focusing on a handful of hot-button issues, it is much easier for proponents/opponents (of anything) to attack and defend a single view than to develop clear, reasoned responses to a myriad of positions. Nuance is nice enough in the abstract, but if one finds oneself compelled to address the many sides of a particular topic, the Rose of Subtlety loses quite a bit of its bloom. It's just not very practical.

Sadly, once nuance is lost, dyed-in-the-wool fence sitters like me find themselves with nary a fence to sit upon. I hold a position on immigration that is neither "Send 'em all packin' and put up that wall!" nor "They're here, now, and laws are mostly meant as suggestions, anyway", but such in-between thinking is no longer considered expedient by the Pronouncing Political Powers and Media Mavens who reduce serious questions—on the legality and effectiveness of the death penalty; on the moral foundation and repercussions of the Iraqi/Afghani invasions; on our obligations in the face of such frightening economic times—to a pair of extremes.

"Option A vs. Option B," we've got aplenty; of multiple choices we are fresh out. Woe betides he who picks something in the middle; both will spew him out of their mouths for being all-too grey for their black and white world.

A recent viewing of Albert Lamorisse's White Mane (Crin-Blanc, Cheval Sauvage)—at the recommendation of a faithful"Lens" reader—reminded me of one of the most personally frustrating of these hot button issues: conservationism and its many moral and practical considerations. Mulling over my publically-acceptable options, I find the notion that humanity is little more than an unnecessary blight on the face of the Earth only slightly more appalling than the suggestion that Genesis gives us license to do whatever we bloody well please with God's Creation.

Winner of the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival a mere three years before Lamorisse's Oscar-awarded The Red Balloon took home that same honor, White Mane is a lyrical, visually striking homage to the films of the Silent Era. Using little more than music and imagery—there is a line or two of dialogue and a sparse sprinkling of voice-over narration—the 40-minute short tells the story of White Mane, unquestioned leader of a herd of wild horses roaming through the marshlands of Camargue, France. A group of local herdsmen have vowed to capture and subdue the film's eponymous steed—they have "determined to find White Mane to prove to him that men are always the strongest," as the narrator says—but despite successfully corralling the stallion a number of times, their efforts at subjugation have proven spectacularly unsuccessful.

Folco, a young boy who earns his living fishing on Camargue's labyrinthine marshes, watches the cowboys and their stubborn victim from a distance, fascinated by the horse's resistance to the battle-tested methods of his captors. Drawn to the fiercely beautiful animal, Folco is overjoyed to hear the foreman's exasperated cry: "That dirty beast! Whoever wants him can have him!" Galvanized into action by these words, the young fisherman sets out on the nearly impossible task of making White Mane his own. His approach, however, is strikingly different than that of his elder adversaries. As one whose very existence depends on an awareness and sensitivity to his natural surroundings—nature puts food on his grandfather's table, playthings in his baby brother's hands, and dreams in his own tousled blond head—Folco is determined to befriend White Mane rather than frighten him into obedience. But the cowboys' relentless efforts to "prove than men are always the strongest" threaten to undermine the young boy's attempts to find "that wonderful place where men and horses are friends, always."

Some cite the film's (possibly) ambiguous ending—can something be ambiguously ambiguous?—and the harsh actions of the horse breakers as a sign that the film is firmly ensconced on the "Nature Is Better Off Without Humanity" side of the debate. But the story's most brutal moments come from its animal protagonists, not its human ones. (The battle for supremacy between White Mane and a rival stallion is particularly difficult to watch for those of us accustomed to the thoroughly American Humane Association-approved cinematic experiences of today.) And while the methods employed by the film's adults are hard-hearted, their motivation seems to be one of utility rather than simple cruelty; they have a job to do, and they're employing the often rough means necessary to accomplish their task. They're not mean, just practical.

Still, to deny that the film "leans green" would be disingenuous and would run the risk of ignoring its efforts at highlighting the delicate balance between humanity and the created world—a balance we humans dismiss at our peril. Lamorisse clearly intends us to view the actions of the cowboys with some skepticism (perhaps even distaste), but their behavior is of secondary interest to him, gaining its true meaning only when seen in contrast with Folco's own actions.

Nature and Mankind share the ultimate symbiotic relationship: Nature provides humans with material needs, and Man provides Nature with its reason for being. Yet this internal, dynamic balance—"the integrity of the cosmos," as Blessed Pope John Paul II describes it—is far more difficult to recognize that one would imagine. We find ourselves so focused on our God-given prerogative to "subdue the Earth" that we often ignore what it's trying to tell us.

To truly embrace our roles as stewards, we must learn to listen as well as to command. The subjugation of Nature will only succeed if we recognize the importance of the stewardship to which we have been called. It is easy to assert our importance in the order of Creation, but Heaven help us if we refuse to recognize that safeguarding the integrity of this harmonious universe is as vital a part of our human nature as is our dominion over it.

And one needs to be both patient and nuanced to understand that.

Attribution(s): All images and stills are the property of The Criterion Collection and other respective production studios and distributors.