The Red Pony by John Steinbeck (1937)
The Red Pony directed by Lewis Milestone (1949)
I was impressed with how vividly Steinbeck describes the scenery and he also superb at creating these complex, nuanced characters. The dialogue felt so genuine and real as well as the way different human emotions are described.
The first story is about Jody getting a pony which he names Gabilan. Gabilan is his pride and joy and he is very responsible and takes great care of him. However, one day he leaves Gabilan outside, when ranch hand Billy Buck assures him, it won’t rain. It does rain though, and Gabilan gets sick and ends up dying.
He tries killing one of the vultures that is found eating Gabilan and when Billy and his dad find him, the dad tells him doesn’t he know it isn’t the birds fault? To which Billy stands up for Jody and says of course he knows that, but imagine how he must feel?
In this story Jody learns for the first time about the fallibility of adults, and what it feels like to lose something so important to you.
The Great Mountains-1933
In the second story, Jody is dreaming about exploring the mountains when an old Hispanic man named Gitano shows up, saying he was born on this land, and he now wants to stay until he dies. Jody’s dad, Carl. Is very rude to the man and doesn’t want him on the property. He says he can stay the night, but after that he needs to go.
Later, Jody and Gitano are outside and Carl’s old horse Easter shows up. Carl takes the opportunity to try and humiliate Gitano, by talking about how useless Easter is now that he’s old and he would be better off being shot. Billy disagrees and says that he deserves his time to relax before he dies naturally.
The next day Gitano and Easter are gone, and a neighbor tells them he saw the man on Easter riding back into the mountains with his rapier which Jody had been admiring.
The Promise 1937
In the Promise, Carl knows someone whose mare is pregnant. He tells Jody to go get the mare, and care for it up until the colt is born and Jody can have the colt to replace Gabilan.
Jody takes care of the mare but is impatient because it seems to be taking so long. Billy assures him everything will be fine and he will get his colt. However, after Billy was wrong about Gabilan, Jody now second guesses him. This upsets Billy and makes him feel bad.
The horse ends up going into labor, but the colt is positioned wrong so Billy has to kill the mare and then cut the colt out which he then presents to Jody who was watching the whole time.
This might be my favorite story. It is how getting what we want doesn’t always happen the way we think and how life can be messy and sad and painful. Also showing life that came from death.
The Leader of the People-1937
The final story is about the mom’s dad, Jody’s grandpa coming to visit. Carl complains about how the grandpa just tells the same stories over and over. About how he led a group of people west, fought native Americans, eating buffalo and that sort of thing.
The grandpa shows up and sure enough, he tells the same stories they have heard many times. Carl is passive aggressive but is bearable.
However, the next morning he is complaining about the grandpa saying no one cares about his stories and why does he have to tell them over and over again. The grandpa overhears, the dad apologizes, and the grandpa says it’s okay and sits outside.
Jody joins him, and feeling bad, tells the grandpa he likes his stories. The grandpa then says,
“I tell those stories, but they’re not what I want to tell. I only know how I want people to feel when I tell them.
It wasn’t Indians that were important, nor adventures, nor even getting out here. It was a whole bunch of people made into one big crawling beast. And I was the head. It was westering and westering. Every man wanted something for himself, but the big beast that was all of them wanted only westering. I was the leader, but if I hadn’t been there, someone else would have been the head. The thing had to have a head. Under the little bushes the shadows were black at white noonday. When we saw the mountains at last, we cried – all of us. But it wasn’t getting here that mattered, it was movement and westering. We carried life out here and set it down the way those ants carry eggs. And I was the leader. The westering was as big as God, and the slow steps that made the movement piled up and piled up until the continent was crossed.
Then we came down to the sea, and it was done.” He stopped and wiped his eyes until the rims were red. “That’s what I should be telling instead of stories.”
After this, Jody offers the grandpa lemonade and goes inside to make him some. The mom assumes he offered grandpa lemonade, just so Jody himself could also therefore have lemonade. But Jody says he doesn’t want any, just wants to make some for grandpa which touches his mom’s heart as she realizes Jody is growing up and is becoming a less self-centered child.
The movie is a mix of three of the stories, leaving out the story of Gitano. They add some conflict with the husband and wife though. In the movie, Carl isn’t from Salinas and wasn’t born a rancher and misses city life. He ends up leaving part way through, but then returns and by the end he embraces the ranch life with his family.
The movie does have the scene where he grabs the vulture, and this is the most intense scene of the movie and reminded me of Birds, which of course came out later.
I thought the acting was fine, but I wasn’t blown away by any of the performances. I did think Myrna Loy stood out because of how wooden she was in this. I was not impressed at all with her acting. I have seen her in other things, and no she can be amazing! But for some reason here, I just wasn’t feeling it.
The movie ends with the birth of the colt-the discussion with the father happens early on in the movie. In the movie, Billy is worried the colt is positioned wrong, and is preparing his knife in case he needs to kill the horse to get the colt out.
Tom (Jody) is very upset about this and doesn’t want his colt if it means the horse dying. Everyone is inside as Jody is upset, and eventually they all run outside to the barn where they see while they were arguing, the colt was born! They all stand outside the fence, looking at the healthy colt and the mare and laugh happily. Man, oh man was this ending cheesy! Needless to say, I didn’t like it at all!
However, it was pointed out that this was 1949 and WW2 was still very fresh. People weren’t wanting to watch a heavy movie, they wanted one that would lift their spirits. So, in that context, it makes sense why the movie took that route.
Also, my mom joined me for this book vs movie discussion and though she prefers the book, she was touched by the happy ending the movie had.
Book vs Movie
When it comes to book vs movie, there’s no contest. The book delves into the human emotions and complexities in a way the movie didn’t. Steinbeck wrote the screenplay himself, and I think maybe writing scripts just isn’t his thing and I wonder if the adaptation would have had more depth had it been written by someone who was better acquainted with the movie medium.