When I was two years old, my parents took me along when they went to see The Man from Snowy River (1982) in the movie theater. I came out obsessed with horses, cowboys, a guy called Jim and a girl called Jessica, and Australia. And this has been my favorite movie ever since.
As a little girl, I would play “Jim and Jessica” every few days, which mostly involved my dad pretending to be a horse and letting me ride around on his back, pretending to chase down other horses. When a video rental shop opened up in our small town a few years later, one of the first movies my parents rented was The Man from Snowy River, so I could see it again. My mom even held a tape recorder up to the TV and recorded all my favorite music so I could listen to it whenever I wanted. She bought the sheet music for the main theme and another song, and played them for me on the piano once in a while.
I went through a phase where I called myself Jessica, mostly because my parents would have had fits if I’d called myself Jim instead. I named my bicycle ‘Brumby,’ the Australian word for wild horse, which the movie centers around. I learned to play Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” because Jessica plays it in the movie. I practiced making hackamores out of rope because Jim makes one, even though I had no horse to put a hackamore on.
Every time I rode a carousel, I visualized as much of the movie’s finale as I could remember and imagined I was riding alongside Jim, chasing down the herd of brumbies. (My parents could never figure out why I wouldn’t wave to them when I passed them on the carousel, but I was too busy inside my head to take the time.) Until I was in my tweens, that was the closest I usually got to riding horses. I practiced on those fake ones as much as I could whenever we visited a county fair or amusement park.
Years and years later, the soundtrack for this movie was playing in the background when each of my three children were born. Three different birth centers in three different states, and three very different birthing experiences, but that was the CD I asked for when things got serious. That means it’s the first music each of my kids ever heard outside the womb, which I think is just neat.
So, what is so magical about The Man from Snowy River? How did it inspire four decades of devotion in me? And why do I still give it the top status in my roster of favorite movies, above the thousands and thousands of other movies I’ve seen since then?
It’s a relatively simple story: a young man grows up in the Snowy River area of the Australian mountains. He lost his mother when he was young, and his father dies in his arms after an accident when he’s barely out of his teens. Jim Craig (Tom Burlinson) is not a quitter, and he thinks he can live on his own in the mountains still, but the wild mountain men tell him he must go down to the low country and earn the right to live in the mountains. So he sets out to do exactly that.
Jim hires out on the ranch of wealthy Mr. Harrison (Kirk Douglas). He attracts the attention of the rancher’s daughter Jessica (Sigrid Thornton) as well as the ire of some snobby ranch hands who mock the quiet mountain man and give him all the worst jobs. Jim has a way with horses, and he succeeds in gentling a valuable colt, the last one foaled by a famous racehorse. This earns him a lot of favor in Jessica’s eyes, but the other ranch hands are envious of Jim’s success and set the colt free, then blame him for it.
The movie is based on a wonderful poem of the same title by the beloved Australian poet A. B. “Banjo” Paterson. He also wrote “Waltzing Matilda,” Australia’s unofficial national anthem. The poem concerns the events of the last half hour of the movie: all the horsemen from every ranch and home nearby gather at the Harrison ranch, ready to chase down the mob of brumbies that the colt has joined, the same herd that caused Jim’s father’s death at the beginning of the film.
Although ordered off Harrison’s ranch, Jim joins the chase anyway. Because he and his horse grew up in the mountains, they can follow the herd over rough terrain that the other riders and their mounts balk at. Jim single-handedly brings in the brumbies, plus the valuable colt, proving himself to be a man grown and earning his right to live on his family’s homestead in the mountains once more. But that means he must leave Jessica behind, though the film’s ending hints they may see each other again, eventually.
I don’t know if I’m drawn to this movie because I love stories about people showing their capabilities and proving that they’re innocent of crimes they’ve been falsely accused of… or if I’m drawn to those kinds of stories because I love this movie. I saw it at such a young age and watched it so often, it formed and shaped my tastes in more ways than I know. I definitely love how those themes play out in this story, and I suspect it will remain my favorite film for the next forty years as well.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com