“God had him in mind when he made a cowboy,” says one of the people in Cindy Meehl’s documentary Buck, in reference to Dan “Buck” Brannaman. Robert Redford talks about meeting Buck as he was preparing to shoot his movie of Nicholas Evans’ novel The Horse Whisperer, and to star in it as Tom Booker, the character that Evans himself says was inspired by none other than Buck Brannaman. When he first met Buck, Redford says, he looked like he had a costume on—then the man’s gentle humanity came through.
Brannaman’s gentle humanity comes through in Meehl’s movie, too; by the time its 90 or so minutes have flown by, we feel like we’ve made a new friend. Anyhow, as Meehl and her crew follow Brannaman from place to place—he spends nine months of the year on the road, presenting four-day horse clinics all over the West—we certainly see him making plenty of friends, both animal and human.
Buck Brannaman is what a less enlightened time would once have called a horse breaker. But he doesn’t really “break” horses; indeed, he rejects the very word with its overtones of brutality and domination. Instead, he calls it “starting” the horse, communicating with the animal in patient, nonthreatening terms it can understand, preparing it to accept a rider as a partner rather than master. Brannaman’s idea is that horse and rider should become one creature, each a physical extension of the other.
What gives Buck Brannaman’s story resonance beyond its Big Sky Country setting is how he came to his gentle philosophy. All he ever wanted to be, he says, was a cowboy, and he began as a child, in a trick-roping act with his older brother, “Smokie.” The boys plied their act on the Western rodeo circuit and even starred in a series of commercials for Kellogg’s Sugar Pops. It made them celebrities and the envy of all their friends, but those friends didn’t know the price Buck and Smokie had to pay. Their father “Ace” was, if we can believe the movie (and I don’t see why we shouldn’t), one mean, sadistic, drunken son of a bitch who would beat the boys mercilessly any time they gave a less than perfect performance—or sometimes just because he felt like it. Their mother died when Buck was 12, and with her went the boys’ last line of protection, until sympathetic authorities in their hometown of Ennis, Montana, intervened and placed them with a foster family. Buck’s foster mother Betsy Shirley—he still calls her “Mom”—is one of the movie’s interview subjects, and she helps give us a window into the nurturing home that allowed Buck eventually to flourish.
This glimpse of Buck Brannaman’s brutal childhood gives us insight into his methods with horses—“When something is scared for their life,” he says, “I understand that”—but it comes at a price. It plants a question in our minds that Meehl’s movie never answers, and that keeps Buck from being the great documentary it might have been: What happened to Smokie?
In archival footage of their act, doing their commercials and appearing on What’s My Line?, the boys seem joined at the hip, but Smokie appears nowhere else. (We gather that Ace Brannaman is dead, and rather hope he is, but we don’t really care what happened to the bastard.) Is Smokie even still alive? A photo of the two during the closing credits, labeled “Buck and Smokie today,” reassures us, but it’s too little too late. I read in another review that Smokie pursued a career in the Coast Guard, but Cindy Meehl doesn’t even offer us that. Did Smokie decline to participate, unwilling to revisit his abusive past? We don’t know, but the question won’t be dismissed, and the movie’s failure to address it leaves a hole in our understanding.
Even so, Buck sends us out with a warm feeling for this calm, plain-spoken man, a living illustration of the Shakespearean aphorism, “Sweet are the uses of adversity.” Given Buck Brannaman’s childhood, many men—perhaps most—might have merely passed the pain along to his own children or anyone (or anything) else that came under his power. But some, the blessed few, resolve that the pain must stop with them, and dedicate themselves in whatever way they can to making life easier for their fellow creatures. Buck Brannaman is one of those.