Unbranded, directed by Phillip Baribeau, is a well-crafted documentary set in the American West. This film features four friends as they travel from Mexico to Canada riding wild mustangs.
The mustangs in question were acquired from Bureau of Land Management roundups. The horses were then heavily trained for the task ahead. Their journey takes them through Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. This trip of 3,000 miles crosses thousands of acres of public lands. It even traverses the Grand Canyon. Here the travelers go rim to rim on horseback, a feat as dangerous as it is rare.
Horses are not as sure-footed as burros and the vertigo-inducing drop offs are frightening. Thankfully, they make the trek unscathed.
The main characters consist of Ben Masters, Jonny Fitzsimmons, Thomas Glover, and Ben Thames. But along the way they are assisted by several wonderful men and women, especially in some of the most remote places where forage and water are difficult to find.
There is a lot of friendly banter and not-so-friendly disagreements along the way. For lovers of the American West and public lands, the film provides a lot of beauty and inspiration. The troupe is camping in the wild, packing what they need on their horses, and galloping with glee across fenceless landscapes.
In a lengthy article by Suzanne Roy, Executive Director of American Wild Horse Campaign, a hardy rebuttal to Masters is laid out bluntly. Roy sees Masters as more fame-seeker than advocate for wild horses or conservation in general. These damning statements greatly question the main focus on the film and is worthwhile giving a read.
By itself, Unbranded is jaw-dropping gorgeous and entertaining. But the fate of wild horses is uncertain and the documentary could have focused more on how to help the horses. There are definitely some good points made and interesting people interviewed.
Horses are native to America and valuable as part of the ecosystem. They are also equivocally American; part of our culture and history. The land they inhabit should be conserved for them, not for cattle. “[O]nly 2 percent of American beef comes from cattle grazed on public lands.”
Unbranded is a worthwhile documentary to watch. Dismissing Ben Masters is disingenuous. Much of his work, including Unbranded, showcases some of the best landscapes and habitat found in public lands. He has produced several amazing films and is not a “mouthpiece for the ranching and hunting industries” as Roy states.
I watched Unbranded on YouTube free but with commercials. Running time is around 1 hour 45 minutes.
Learn more about:
Fin & Fur Films (Master’s website)
American Wild Horse Campaign
BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program