Pit Pony (1997)
Glace Bay, Nova Scotia Canada, 1901. Willie MacLean is a 10-year-old boy with a love for horses and liking to school to cape the difficult times his family has. Willie’s stern, but benevolent father is a coal miner in a local mine along with his older brother John. But when Willie’s father is injured and John is killed in an accident at the mine, Willie is forced to step into his brother’s shoes to support his older sister Nellie, and two younger sisters until their father recovers. Willie soon finds work at the mine lonely (aka: the pit) and unfriendly in which he forms a bond with a pit pony horse in order to make it though each day.
I wrote about this property for my Cinematic Trip Around Canada:
Pit Pony is one of those properties that you come across by chance. I first became familiar with it due to the television series that expanded upon the story, which bounced around several different US broadcasters. It’s one of the few shows I’ve seen in its entirety on multiple occasions. It reaffirms my belief that, although rarely implemented, the half-hour drama, especially when shot single-camera, is the most effective TV format. You have in this series palpable drama, romance, all in a turn of the century mining town so there’s a Dickensian struggle to is also.
Eventually, the TV show lead me to seek out the novel upon which it was based, and also the feature film that kickstarted the series. The film is essentially very faithful to the book and the series picks up from there spinning out new tales. In some ways the film isn’t as cinematic as the show is at its best. However, the emotional truth is there owing mostly to the fact that is shares many of the same actors. The various incarnations of the story but mainly the series is why Nova Scotia is near the top of my list of places to go; those vistas need to be seen in person.
On the subject of the book, I enjoyed it a great deal and may share it with my own child.
Movie/Show Ties and Differences
There are far more similarities in the film and TV series than there are differences. From the top Cochran Productions to the cast featuring a young Ellen Page (credited as Ellen Philpotts-Page), to Heather Conkie writing the script to Eric Till directing, then helming five episodes. The most notable differences are Ben Rose-Davis as Willie, not Alex Wrathell. Gabriel Hogan as Ned Hall, not Shaun Smyth.
Within the framework of this tale there are a lot of inherent conflicts built in. Conflicts that can be examined in further detail and can fluctuate in importance. This is one of the strongest indicators of how strong it could be (and was) as a TV series. Among these struggles are:
- Carving out a living in a mining town where the company controls your fate.
- The clash of working class and educated.
- Management vs. labor; strikes (here Ned’s past haunts him).
- The threat of disease, namely consumption.
- The tug of an important industry that is unsafe.
- Fear, best illustrated by the fact that the Ocean Deeps mines actually extend out under the Atlantic.
- Rebelling against the family business.
Even the love interest subplot well folded in, as to get something he wants (driving lessons from Ned and a new position) Willie must put in a good word for Ned with Nellie.
Just as the conflicts in the narrative are varied so are some of the themes ever present in this story and stories like it. The film seeks to free both a boy and a horse from the mine, so much so that the title could just as easily refer to boy or horse. There are losses of family members to deal with, and the ever-present danger. The earth is quite literally a player as the miners go deep beneath the ground being symbolically interred, and as Ned states; he wants to work above the ground not beneath it. The boy and his horse, as well as the threats to the horse are commonplace but combined with all these other factors and permutations it stands out as a unique layer.
This is the only part of this piece where I may have to warn you away with a spoiler alert. They’re vague but there. For the brave you may read on.
Many elements work in the climax’s favor:
- It’s thought to be bad luck for a woman to be seen at mine, then Nellie comes to talk to Ned this occurs right before the climactic events.
- A shot of rats running, which was foreshadowed as a sign of impeding trouble.
- A growing flame, foreshadowed as how miners detected leaks; the alert whistle rings through town and silences every one.
- Ned heroically goes after Willie.
- Willie attempts to rescue his bully, Simon, and his horse, Gem.
The realizaton that nearly all is well is dramatically rendered also. The rescue scene is cutaway from so we wait with those worried, then there are shots of entrance pulley and rope; the survivors are in the last coal car that surfaces.
The mine collapse claims Willie’s horse, Gem, but one of the surprises, and an uplifting bittersweet note is that Gem, who was pregnant, delivered a foal. Whereas working the mine was the only way he could be with Gem as the horse was property of the mine, this foal was given to Willie as a gift/reward for his valor in rescuing Simon.
Further uplifting the conclusion is the return to health of Willie’s dad (not unlike in Flipper) there will be a change in the characters between the movie and the film, but this one is at least explained in the writing of the show). Lastly, and most importantly, it’s out of the mine and back to school for Willie, as his dad arranged to get him out while he finished his recovery at home.
The film ends on a gorgeous silhouette shot at magic hour. The 4:3 cinematography is good but the show, likely endowed with a bigger budget, had far more consistently brilliant imagery. At the very end are two title cards that drive home how commonplace the practice of employing minors in the mines was. In 1923 boys were no longer allowed in the pits. It is estimated that around 100,000 had worked in them in Canada to that point.
It’s not just a primal gut reaction to the thought of working in subterranean climes, or the simpler, harder times that make something like Pit Pony a success. Even the film, as quickly and broadly as it paints its many conflicts and relationships, pulls on the heartstrings. The sense of place is evidenced not just by how lovingly Glace Bay is portrayed but also by the common ancestry (Scotland) many characters share that grounds it. It’s a provincial portrait, a subcultural one, a loving one, but like most specific tales there’s a universality within it that transcends borders and time periods.
Some stories in many versions are ones you cling to because they mean a great deal to you and they’re well known. Others you may cling to more tightly because they’re not as universally known and they seem to call out and speak to you in a unique and special way. Pit Pony is one of those stories I consider myself fortunate to have encountered. I know I’m not alone in admiring it, but I also know there aren’t throngs who know it, nor is it yet classic. However, that just makes me want to hold it more dear and share it with those who would hear.