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Review of The Colt


by David Bjerre, March 2005

Colt meaning baby horse, NOT gun .....



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Updated:
07 June 2006

INTRO

War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Well... that’s not entirely true. War, in its many forms, has always fascinated people, and has been the subject of many books, films and other works of art. The reason for that is simple: War presents mankind at our most basic level. It cuts to the bone. It simplifies. It purifies. War shows us for what we truly are...

Journalist and sergeant, 46 kb

STORY

The smell of gunpowder is hanging thick in the air, and everywhere battle-weary soldiers are hurrying back and forth, busying themselves, trying to forget what just happened. We’re on a battlefield somewhere in America, in 1864. The Civil War is raging, and this particular band of Union soldiers just made it through yet another skirmish. Most of them anyway.

A young soldier, Private Jim Rabb (Ryan Merriman) kneels next to the lifeless body of his older brother. As he says his good-byes he is being watched by one of his superiors, Sgt. Longacre (Steve Bacic) and the resident sketch artist Tom Covington (Darcy Belsher). The latter is sent out by a newspaper to document the war.

Night falls and with the help of a few bottles of liquor, the soldiers are able to cope with the grim prospects of going to war again. Then an explosion lights up the sky. The regiment is under attack, and in the midst of the battle, Jim’s trusty horse runs away. The animal has been in his family forever, and he can’t bear the thought of losing it, so he chases after it, through the woods. When he finally finds it again the next morning, he realises why it’s been acting so strange recently. On the ground, next to the exhausted animal, lies a newborn colt.

It seems like such a strange thing. In the middle of all this killing, and all this death, a new life has somehow managed to slip through the devil’s claws. But there are no two ways about it. The colt must die. The regiment can’t afford to be slowed down by the newborn horse, and Sgt. Longacre orders Jim to take care of the problem. Jim tries to shoot it, but he just can’t do it. In the end Sgt. Longacre has to step in to do the job. But when he raises his loaded gun to that innocent little colt, he finds that he too is incapable of pulling the trigger.

And so it goes. After convincing their Captain that the animal deserves a chance, the colt is allowed to join the regiment, and soon becomes a mascot for the soldiers. But keeping track of the colt proves to be a difficult job for Jim, and soon he’s forced to take extreme measures to protect it.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the dense woods, an equally battered unit of soldiers from the other side are searching for the enemy. Unknowingly these Union and Confederate soldiers are moving straight towards each other...

Longacre, 37 kb











Longacre, 36 kb











Captain, 31 kb

THE FILM

Based on a short story by the Nobel Prize winning author Mikhail Sholokhov, “The Colt” takes place in a dark period of American history, one that continues to inspire storytellers. And why shouldn’t it? A country at war with itself, as it were, is both disturbing and fascinating, and though it is often reduced to a question about slavery, it is far more complex than that. Even today, residue from the conflict plagues the country, and when North and South must come to terms and meet the rest of the world as the United States of America, they are often less united than it seems.

“The Colt” ignores almost all aspects of the war, and merely uses it as a backdrop. In that respect the story could easily have taken place during Desert Storm, and be called “The Little Camel”. But that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with taking a simple story and playing it out against a complicated dramatic background. Unless of course, you don’t actually have a story to tell.

And that’s the big problem “The Colt” is facing. It’s not really about anything. Okay, there is a story about a young soldier trying to take care of a horse, but surely there is more to it than that? Nope. What you see is what you get. Since the film isn’t about anything, it doesn’t have a goal, and that’s no good.

It's important for a film, any film, to establish a clear goal early on. "We have to find the Holy Grail before the Nazis". That's a goal! Or "There's a shark on the loose, we have to find it and kill it". That's a goal too! A goal is important because without a goal, there can be no obstacles in the way, and obstacles are what make a story interesting. “I have to take care of this horse”, is not a good enough goal. “I have to take care of this horse, or else (something) will happen”. That’s a good goal, but the film is missing that last crucial part.

There are a number of different adjustments that could have saved the story. What if the horse belonged to Jim’s brother, for example? And that he had to take it home alive, because it would always remind his mother about her older son. Or we could even go as far as making Jim responsible for his brother's death as well. That would give him even more reason to save the colt at all cost, because it would be metaphor for his desire to save his brother. It does not matter what direction the story takes, as long as it takes one.

At one point the Captain says that the colt is bad for the soldiers, because it makes them think of home, and it makes them love the war a little less. In this simple sentence we find our smoking gun, because that's what the story should have focused on. The fact that a new life brings more death, as the soldiers try to protect it, and the fact that the soldiers becomes less effective because they suddenly remember that they fight for, and suddenly feel a desire to go home. Sun Tzu, the Japanese war philosopher who wrote The Art of War, said (I’m paraphrasing): If a man finds himself in a hopeless situation, he will fight to the death. Show him a way out and he will lose his resolve, and then you will be able to overcome him. That’s the unpleasant situation the Captain of the regiment faces, and I would love if the film had explored that aspect.

"The Colt" never shows us who the soldiers are or what they have to lose. These things are only briefly mentioned in dialogue (violating the immortal movie doctrine: Show, don't tell). Instead we get pointless scenes, such as the one where Jim encounters a sickeningly wholesome farmer family, who embrace him as if he were their long lost son, and immediately offer him and his horse refuge. They feed him and send him on his merry way, and despite having spent forever in company of this “7th Heaven” reject family, the plot hasn’t moved an inch, and when Jim leaves we’re no further in the story than we were when he arrived.

This is not the only time the film wastes valuable screen time with scenes that don’t move the plot forward in any way.

Oh, and while we’re talking about that nicer than nice farmer family, let me just comment on the way people behave in the film. Everybody is so damn civilised! “Excuse me, Sir. Please forgive me for shattering your spine with my bullet”. “Nonsense, it’s all my fault. I was in the way”! Would a bunch of hurt, hungry and homesick soldiers of that time really talk the way they do in this film? I doubt it.

Jim Rabb , 12 kb

CHARACTERS

Let me start by saying that I love Ryan Merriman. I particularly enjoy his performance in the short-lived TV-series “Veritas”, where he played sort of a young Indiana Jones clone. Merriman is a fine actor, but he has nothing to work with here. The character is basically just a horse wrangler. Everything he does is about the horse. He seems to have no dreams and no plans, save those that pertain to the horse. He even has nightmares about the horse getting shot instead of himself! His need to stay with and protect the horse, at ALL cost is just not realistic. Even when soldiers are dropping likes flies around him, all he can think of is that stupid horse. He actually shoots more soldiers protecting the horse, than he does protecting his friends.

Steve Bacic stars as the tough Sgt. Longacre. With a scruffy looking beard, southern drawl, and cap pulled down so it almost covers his eyes, he personifies my idea of a soldier from that time to perfection. The character is well-observed, and at times quite amusing, but Bacic gets far too little screen time. That’s a shame. He could breathe a whole lot more life into the film, because his face is a thousand times more interesting than that of the blue-eyed Ryan Merriman. Somebody give that man a lead role! He can handle it! I promise!

Longacre, 32 kb

WRAP-UP

There’s no denying that “The Colt” means well, and the film could easily have worked. Despite the low budget and the TV-movie feel, it still successfully manages to convey the time period because all the players have it in them to deliver the goods. Unfortunately they haven’t got the material. Bottom line, “The Colt” is a story about a horse and a boy, and everything else seems to be distractions on the way.

In the end I just sat and wished somebody would kill that damn horse and get on with it. Oh, and while you’re at it, kill that bloody banjo player strumming in the background too.






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