“Got to get that boy a colt.”
Anyone familiar with the likes of The Yearling or especially My Friend Flicka will know the territory we’re in with The Red Pony. It’s territory that involves a young boy and the responsibility that comes with having an animal to look after. In The Red Pony, young Tom lives on a ranch in California’s Salinas Valley with his parents Fred and Alice Tiflin and their ranch hand Billy Buck. Tom has a special relationship with Billy Buck and when his father gives him a red pony for his own, he turns to Billy for help in training the young horse he has named Gabilan. Gabilan progresses quickly and even learns to open the barn door on his own, an ability which eventually leads to possible disaster when he wanders out into the rain and becomes very sick. Tom and Billy try to nurse him back to health and against the odds seem to have succeeded, but Gabilan once again gets away.
The story is based on the novel of the same title by John Steinbeck, which itself was made up of four short stories originally published separately by Steinbeck during the 1930s. Steinbeck wrote the screenplay himself. Direction was by Lewis Milestone, who had previously done a good job filming another Steinbeck story, Of Mice and Men (1939), and had won a Best Director Academy Award for 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front. The principal players were Myrna Loy as the mother and Robert Mitchum as Billy Buck. The music score was by well-known American composer Aaron Copland. With this sort of pedigree, the film should have been a good one, and indeed it was.
Sentimental the story may be, but it is told in neither a melodramatic nor cloying fashion. The family is presented realistically and has a background that is not without its own drama in that Tom’s father is to some extent a fish out of water on a ranch and has to go away to come to grips with where his future is going to be. Billy Buck is essentially a good man, but his failing is over-optimism that leads to unrealistic expectations in Tom. Tom’s mother is the real rock of the family, and her strength sees the family through its difficulties.
The acting throughout the cast is uniformly good — understated but sincere. Myrna Loy and Robert Mitchum both deliver as expected, but Peter Miles as young Tom and Shepperd Strudwick as Fred offer thoroughly competent performances but less recognizable (entirely new in Miles’ case) faces that give the familiar story that much more believability. Louis Calhern does a nice turn as Tom’s grandfather and the sharp-eyed will see Beau Bridges as one of Tom’s schoolmates. Margaret Hamilton plays a no-nonsense schoolteacher.
Director Milestone orchestrates things without a great deal of flair for the most part, but he does stage a very realistic and frightening attack on Tom by a vulture — one that would have been quite unusual for a family-oriented film in 1949.
The film was originally made on location at a ranch in Agoura, California by Republic Pictures. There was an 81-day shooting schedule that was the costliest in the company’s history to that time. The high costs were partly due to the decision to film in Technicolor. The film was later remade for television in 1973 and starred Henry Fonda, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, and Clint Howard.
The Republic connection is the reason that the film appears on DVD from Artisan. That’s unfortunate for us, because most Technicolor films need special attention to have them look their best on DVD. That attention, as one might expect, has not been forthcoming from Artisan. The film is presented correctly in full frame, but the transfer is otherwise disappointing. There’s plenty of speckles and debris, and colour intensity and fidelity are inconsistent, with dark scenes descending into murky messes with complete loss of shadow detail. About the only good thing one can say is that edge enhancement is not a major issue. Artisan’s packaging suggests the presence of a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround track, but there’s little evidence of anything other than mono sound. It’s quite adequate for the film in terms of dialogue clarity and it delivers Copland’s music faithfully if with little sense of dynamicism. There are no subtitles, but Artisan actually gives us a supplement on a classic title — the original theatrical trailer!