Ordinarily, I wouldn’t choose a word such as “gritty” to describe a children’s film. This is not an adjective that sits well with Disney, or with excellent films such as The Secret of Roan Innish, The Journey of Natty Gann, The Black Stallion, or The Secret Garden. Pocahontas might be appalling, revisionist history, but it’s not – definitely not – gritty. And this summer, with the opening of an animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney is proving that one can even take Victor Hugo’s monumental medieval phantasmagoria of religious bigotry, injustice, and unrequited passion and still avoid even a soupcon of grit. Which is why we need screenwriters like Jim Sheridan, and children’s films like Into the West (1993).
In or around most large cities nowadays are grim concrete excrescences, monuments to failed ideals of progressive social housing. These vertical acres of concrete and stone have become sinkholes of drug addiction, claustrophobia, domestic violence, and crime. Life here is a sentence instead of a journey. Into the West tells the story of two Gypsy boys, their father, and a very special horse, who begin in Dublin’s soul-killing Towers and end up on the shores of the Atlantic. By remaining true to the grittiness of the boys’ urban roots, Into the West grounds its fantasy in a healthy dose of reality. Magic’s more convincing when it’s unexpected.
The young boys, Rúaidhrí Conroy as Tito and Ciarán Fitzgerald as Ossie, are marvelous actors. Tito and Ossie survive on the streets of Dublin by resorting to the tricks of the trade they’ve inherited from their Gypsy forbears. Ossie, the youngest, has a failsafe begging routine, exaggerating his natural asthmatic condition and wheezing out heart-breaking renditions of “Danny Boy.” They get no help from their father. Papa Reilly (Gabriel Byrne), once a Gypsy king, has become an embittered alcoholic. He’s joined the “settled people” he once scorned, turning his back on the harsh Gypsy life he blames for the death, in child-birth, of his wife. While he wallows in self-pity, his boys spin fantasies of the Wild, Wild West where everything is larger than life instead of smaller and meaner.
If all of this seems a rather grim beginning to a fairy tale, don’t panic. I’m not about to recommend a movie that’ll put your children into psychotherapy for life. Into the West is about love, mystery, and redemption. The opening scene is of a great white horse running down a beach by moonlight. This is the same horse which the boys’ grandfather, a true Gypsy “Traveler,”, will find and bring back for his grandchildren. In the eyes of Tito and Ossie, this horse becomes the one that the great Irish hero, Ossian, rode when he came back to Ireland from his sojourn in the mythical land of Tir-na-nog. It’s the one which will carry them into the Wild West of their dreams. What they do not know is that the white horse is also the ghost of their father’s past, and their family’s redemption.
It’s also a really awkward thing to accommodate in a tenth-storey low-rent housing unit. The residence committee is not amused. Nor are the police. One thing leads to another, and pretty soon boys and horse are on the run across Ireland, camping out in ruined abbeys and downtown cinemas. They bake beans by the campfire, and point to distant hills, exclaiming, ‘It’s the Rockies! Hi-yo, Silver, away!!’ After a while, though, it becomes clear that their horse is the only one who knows where their journey is leading them. Halfway across Ireland, Ossie and Tito are ready to pack it in and be cowboys some other day. Papa Reilly, forced to renew his contact with the Traveller life he’s abandoned, must face the past he’s tried to erase.
For the rest of us, Gypsies themselves are a link with a mythical past. Their caravans are still found outside cities across Europe. Their striking costumes seem timeless. They are still tinkers and metal-workers and horse-copers and fortune tellers. They are still thieves and beggars. Their freedom is not bought cheaply, but it is without compromise. With the sole exception of the Jews, no other race in Europe has been more reviled and persecuted. In legend, they are the children of Cain, the ones who turned the Virgin Mary from their doors, and the forgers of the nails used in the Crucifixion. Tens of thousands of Gypsies died in the camps of the Holocaust. Government after government has tried to assimilate them, but they endure.
Into the West weaves Gypsy romance and Celtic legend together to remind us that the old ways are not dead. What the film tells of Gypsy life is true. The mysteries remain. For anyone interested, I recommend Jean-Paul Clébert’s book The Gypsies. And here I have a personal testimony to make. The day I was going into Nelson to pick up a copy of Into the West, there was a white and green covered wagon parked in front of me at the Kootenay Bay ferry landing. It was hitched to a truck with Arizona plates. Although it didn’t look quite like any covered wagon I’d seen in the movies, I thought it was simply shaped to its owner’s idiosyncratic design. That same evening, I saw the wagon again. It was being driven by Ossie and Tito’s grandfather. Whoever those Arizona travelers were, they had modelled their caravan after the Gypsy wagons of Ireland. Mere coincidence, you say? I think not. And here some of you were wondering how I chose films for this column
Mind you, I would have written this review without the synchronicity. That was just icing on the cake. I’m always impressed by children’s films that promote character and craft over plot. Far too often it’s a case of Here’s the Villain: Here’s the Chase: Here’s the Movie. Into the West does have a villain and a chase (what Western would be complete without one?), but they are distant seconds to what we learn of the boys and their father, and what they learn about themselves. Into the West definitely won’t traumatize your children, but after watching it you’d better keep an eye on them if the circus or the Gypsies pass through your town.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
I haven’t been able to track down a copy of this film for a second look. It doesn’t seem to be available through iTunes or YouTube. Because I have virtually no memory of Into the West. I’m leaving this entry incomplete until I can re-connect.