For a movie so securely anchored in time and place—the very Scottish coal-mining community of turnof-the-century Glace Bay, N.S.— Pit Pony is thematically all over the map. Coming-of-age story, social history, disaster film, it sinks so many tentative shafts that it fails to unearth a single real jewel. What saves the drama, and raises it well above the average TV movie, is the impressive debut of its 10-year-old star, Ben Rose-Davis. Pit Pony is also distinguished by a haunting Celtic sound
track and the stark scenery of Cape Breton in winter.
Willie MacLean’s father and older brother work the Ocean Deeps coal mine in 1901, supporting 11-year-old Willie and his three sisters. It isn’t Willie’s age that keeps him out of the mine. From 1866 to 1923, when the practice was banned, 10,000 Nova Scotian boys— some as young as 9—worked the province’s collieries. But his family aims higher for him, and Willie remains in school. Willie’s greatest joy is skipping class to visit the docks to see the pit ponies unloaded. The “ponies” are actually feral horses from Sable Island whose small size and toughness make them perfect for work in the cramped coal mines— rather like the boys of Glace Bay.
But coal mining is inherently dangerous—a recent accident buried Willie’s grandfather, another took his neighbor’s life, and eventually a cave-in kills his brother and puts his father in a coma. So Willie, frightened but determined, goes to work. In a lengthy, harrowing scene, he descends through the dripping tunnels far out under the Atlantic to take up his
mind-numbing but vital job as a trapper: he must keep a door secure, opening it only for the passage of coal, in order to prevent deadly methane gas from poisoning the men. Willie is advised to keep an eye on the vermin swarming all around him, because they can detect the odorless gas before he can—“If you see the rats running, you run with them," an experienced hand tells him.
That first shift, culminating in a beautiful sequence of Willie endlessly ascending the shaft at the end of the day until the sun finally strikes his face and brings a smile of astonishing sweetness to it, is Pit Pony’s finest moment. Rose-Davis’s
vulnerable, understated acting is superb—far beyond that offered by the adult cast, particularly ex-Mamas and Papas member Denny Doherty, who portrays a friendly ex-sailor as a kind of toned-down Long John Silver.
Pit Pony abruptly leaves Willie’s compelling and believable everyday world with yet another cave-in. After being promoted to hauler, working in tandem with a pit pony named Gem, Willie has to face the same disaster that felled his father and brother, as the movie lurches to its unbelievable ending.
Whatever their artistic missteps, the film-makers quite rightly depict the boy miners with respect, not pity. That attitude, and the recently released report of the Westray inquiry, add poignancy to Pit Pony. Almost a century of large-scale, repeated death in the pits directly links Willie’s world to that of the Westray miners. And viewers are left to conclude that coal mining has truly improved only for the Sable Island horses, now replaced by machinery.
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