Today I watched on TV the 1992 movie Into the West starring Gabriel Byrne. It's a fantasy movie about a mystical horse, and a band of Irish travellers. It's sort of like how Thunderheart revolved around a part-Lakota man going to the reservation and getting in touch with Native mysticism and culture, so that he becomes proud of his heritage instead of ashamed. Into the West has that same sort of blending of real, modern world with the myths and traditions of an outcast culture.
I liked it quite a lot. It's what Beasts of the Southern Wild ought to have been, but wasn't. (Lots of people like Beasts, but I didn't like how nonsensical and strung together it was. The fantastical elements didn't relieve the crushing poverty, and I was sad that Hushpuppy was raised to be hard and have no physical affection or tender words from people who loved her. She desperately craved the embrace she got from the woman whom she thought was her mother. I felt pity and depression more than admiration and hope.) SPOILERS BELOW:
Anyway, back to Into the Wild. Irish travellers are nomadic people, like the Romany or gypsy people, only they are of Irish descent. They travel in caravans with horses and wagons, camping on the edges of towns. The main characters are Papa Riley, a widower, and his two young sons, Tito and Ossie. Papa Riley used to be King of the Travellers, until his wife died and he tried to start a settled life, living on welfare in an apartment building he calls the Towers. "Papa" appears also to be partly a title, because other Travellers, even Papa's father-in-law, address him as "Papa" instead of by name.
Tito remembers life on the road, telling fortunes and doing magic, but his younger brother never experienced this since he was born the same night his mother died. Ossie doesn't know this and his brother is reluctant to tell him. The boys visit with their grandfather Ward, who is still a Traveller, and meet a white horse named Tír na nÓg. The grandfather explains the name as meaning "Land of Eternal Youth" because that is supposedly where the horse is from. He tells the Irish folklore story of Oisín who lived in this land under the water for a thousand years; but when he missed his home, he road out on a magical horse. He was warned to never get off the horse, but he fell off and aged so quickly that he died and disintegrated into dust. The boys love the story and the horse, and decide to take Tír na nÓg home to their apartment. Papa Riley is unaware at first because he's in a drunken stupor, and by the time that neighbors complain and police come to remove the horse, Papa has to fight them off for invading his home and upsetting his sons. The police don't give up and come again for the horse, this time with tranquilizer darts and much more force. Tito and Ossie manage to calm the horse and lead him outside, where they try to let him escape. Tír na nÓg runs off and fantastically leaps over a police car, but is still surrounded and taken away in a police wagon. A devastated Ossie blames his father for being drunk and not helping.
Soon Papa Riley goes to the police station and tries to buy the horse back, but is told that it's already been auctioned off. He complains that they had no right to do this, but is threatened until he leaves. We learn that the cops who took the horse have secretly sold him to a rich businessman who breeds horses for show jumping competitions. The man enjoys having the horse leap over higher and higher obstacles, and he lies that he personally bred the white horse himself. Meanwhile Tito and Ossie search for Tír na nÓg and talk about the cowboy movies they watch on TV. Tito says there's a Wild West in Ireland, too, just past the mountains; Ossie wonders if Travellers are Indians or cowboys, but Tito says they are cowboys. The boys also miss school, and have difficulty learning how to read and write. (Papa Riley is illiterate too, due to how he grew up on the road.) When the boys see Tír na nÓg on TV at a show jumping competition, they finally know where he is and hurry to retrieve him. They manage to ride away on the horse, evading all police who try to stop the daring theft.
Then the boys begin to fulfill their fantasy of being cowboys travelling to the west. They sell Tír na nÓg's saddle for money and hitch rides on a train to leave the city. Meanwhile Papa Riley is shocked by what they've done, and the police force him to sign a paper to make the dodgy horse sale legal. (Luckily there is one cop who is starting to suspect the corrupt cops' bullying tactics.) Papa goes to grandfather Ward to accuse him of filling the boys' heads with dangerous stories. Ward counters that his settled life of drunkenness wasn't very good for them either, and says that Papa should have grieved properly for his wife. Traveller tradition is to burn the caravan and set the soul free. Papa Riley just goes off to find a campsite of Travellers, in hopes that they can help track down his sons. The police seem to have no luck finding the boys either, so they follow Papa Riley to see if he can lead them in the right direction. Some of the Travellers dislike Papa Riley now, especially because of the police presence, but others are more sympathetic to him and try to tempt him back into life on the road. Papa Riley sees that they still have the empty caravan that belonged to him and his wife, and he can't bear to sleep in it. His wife was turned away from a hospital because they were Travellers, and that is possibly why she died, and why he blamed their lifestyle for her death. Papa Riley and two friends take off on horseback to try to find the boys.
Meanwhile Tito and Ossie get off the train in Dublin, and try to survive camping outside and eating berries. They sing songs of the West and imagine themselves as cowboys. They mistake a fox hunting party for a posse out to capture them, and they celebrate when Tito reads that there's a reward for their capture. Eventually, it's too cold to sleep outside and they try to get into a hotel for the night, but are refused. So instead Tito buys Ossie a ticket to a movie, with the understanding that he'll stay inside hidden until the theater closes, then he'll let Tito and the horse in through a side door. They have a wild night eating all the popcorn and soda, and playing a movie once they figure out how to switch on the projector. In the morning, they are caught by a cleaning lady, so they ride outside in a panic, only to be spotted by police. With some help from friendly locals, they manage to escape and ride out of the city once more, still going farther west into mountains and waterfalls. The boys start to miss home and try to turn the horse around, but it refuses. It takes them to their mother's grave, and Ossie sees from the headstone that his birthday is also when their mother died.
Later Papa Riley and his friends find the same grave, and he's troubled by where the white horse has led them. He starts to believe too that the horse might be otherworldly, but he wonders if it's got a good or evil purpose in mind. He's worried for the safety of his boys. Grandfather Ward joins them at the grave and says he thinks he knows where the horse is going. Later the boys are still riding Tír na nÓg, who has brought them straight to a cliff at the seashore. It hesitates a moment, as if considering leaping off, but then rides away toward a sloping beach, while a helicopter follows it. I'm not sure if the helicopter is a police copter or one hired by the rich businessman. Papa Riley's group is already at the beach, and the boys try to turn the horse around, because they fear Papa will take them back to the Towers. Instead, he's overjoyed to see them and promises not to take them back to the Towers. Perhaps he has decided already to rejoin the Travellers. Unfortunately, then the police close in, bringing nets and trying to capture the horse. Papa Riley tries to fight them, but gets caught in the nets. Tír na nÓg meanwhile is riding straight out to the sea. Tito has already fallen off, but Ossie is still on the horse, and Papa calls out for him to get off Tír na nÓg. The horse continues straight into the sea until Ossie falls off and starts to drown.
Horrified, Papa Riley frees himself and swims out, calling for his son. Tito tries to join the rescue, but is held back by another adult. The head police guy sees what a horrible disaster this is, and calls off the forces from fighting with the Travellers. While underwater, Ossie has a vision of his late mother and is quite happy. He is rescued by Papa Riley, who brings him back to shore and revives him. They are stunned and relieved when Ossie wakes up and tells them about his vision. The police are happy that the boy survived but puzzled by the fact that the horse just disappeared. They give up pursuit.
Finally, back at the Travellers' camp, Papa Riley is now burning the caravan to let his wife's soul go free. The boys are there too, and see visions of Tír na nÓg in the flames. This was a good ending and hopeful. Beasts of the Southern Wild tried for this kind of hopeful ending, but I felt more depressed by it. The Travellers, while poor, uneducated, and fiercely proud of their traditions, did not seem to be living in Third World-like squalor. They had survival skills and did occasionally interact with the settled, urban world. They were suspicious of it, but could use it when necessary. And they seemed to value love and affection, rather than looking on softness as a weakness.