After spending more than a decade filming “Running Wild: The Life of Dayton O. Hyde,” it’s understandable that filmmaker Suzanne Mitchell might find it difficult to whittle her footage down to tolerable length for a feature documentary. But despite her obvious and contagious affection for her subject — or perhaps because of it — “Running Wild” canters languidly through biographical highlights, homemovies, archival news footage and talking-heads interviews. Theatrical prospects are dim for the overly discursive pic; still, ancillary distribution could reach viewers already interested in Hyde, a colorful author, rancher, horse-sanctuary founder and old-fashioned cowboy.
Early on, Hyde — well into his 80s, yet still sharp-witted and reasonably ambulatory — describes himself as “a cowboy first, a conservationist second, and a writer third.” Later, however, he indicates that he views “environmentalist” as something you should never call a cowboy, unless you smile. Whatever label he prefers, Hyde has earned the respect and support of equine enthusiasts throughout the world by founding and maintaining the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota, an 11,000-acre habitat where more than 500 mustangs are allowed to roam free without fear of capture during controversial, U.S. government-sanctioned wild horse round-ups.
Throughout most of “Running Wild,” helmer Mitchell alternates between biographical narrative and Hyde’s present-day activism, in a manner designed to show that the man we see now is the end result of a decades-long period of education (both formal and auto-didactic) and evolving ideas.
A Michigan native, Hyde found work at his uncle’s Oregon cattle ranch at age 13. He was educated in a California private school — where, Hyde recalls, he had a fateful encounter with a famous visitor, poet Alfred Noyes — and, following WWII military service, the U. of California, Berkeley, where he earned an English degree and discovered his talent for writing.
Hyde went on to pen 20 books and novels, established himself as a freelance photographer for Life magazine — he proudly displays photos he shot of Slim Pickens during the latter’s heyday as a rodeo clown — and eventually took over the family ranch in Oregon. While in his 60s, he was inspired to establish his horse preserve and spent years gaining support for the projects from donors, volunteers and politicians.
One of the docu’s highlights is an archival news clip of Sen. Harry Reid sounding very impressed after meeting Hyde: “How often do you have someone come up to you that looks like he just climbed off a horse and says, “I’ve got a solution to a problem that you’ve had in Nevada for 10 years’?”
To its credit, “Running Wild” is something short of complete hagiography. The pic indicates Hyde more or less abandoned his wife and family to begin the horse preserve. And Hyde himself acknowledges that he could have been a better father to his children — one of whom died, in a darkly ironic twist of fate, as a result of a horse-riding mishap. The surviving children, it should be noted, sound far less critical while discussing their dad.
Mitchell would have done well to discipline her pic with a sharper focus, and to include least a few comments by Hyde’s critics, including cattle ranchers who take a dim view of wild horses grazing on rangeland. During its final third, pic offers a slightly more balanced of Hyde’s latest cause: his battle with developers who could damage the South Dakota ecosystem while mining uranium near the sanctuary.
Beautiful lensing by Mauro Brattoli and an evocative score Steve Poltz enrich the pic’s flavor as a document of, and a tribute to, an iconic cowboy’s indomitable spirit.