“Wild Horses in the Prairie” by Giorgio Galano (iStockPhoto)


The burden of a name that has come to mean so much.

The word derives from the Spanish mesteño, which is defined as “wild; untamed; ownerless”. By letting the tongue dwell on the roof of the mouth you get to mestengo, a “stray beast”. From there it’s a small step to the word and an idea that has entered into our modern mythology.


Mustangs are wild horses which roam the North American southwest. These were initially descended from horses which escaped, were turned loose or stolen from Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors in the late 1500s and the early 1600s. Over the following centuries their genes were augmented and strengthened by a steady contribution from other domesticated horses which escaped and interbred with established wild populations. They adapted well and flourished with their numbers rising steadily. Estimates of their peak population vary widely, with some consensus there were around two million in the latter part of the 19th century.

Modern mustangs actually marked the return of the wild horse to North America. They had previously become extinct in this area somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 years previously. This was likely due to a combination of the change of climate accompanying the end of the last ice age and the arrival of human hunters. There is no ancestral connection between ancient horses from this period and modern mustangs. The latter are here as a direct consequence of current human habitation. Mustangs’ domesticated ancestry still shows up in their gene pool in that they can be re-domesticated fairly easily; in as little as 100 days in some cases.

In 1940, the British Purchasing Commission was set up in New York to acquire the armaments necessary to prepare for Britain’s looming, inevitable conflict with the Nazis. As part of that effort, the Commission asked North American Aviation for a proposal to manufacture a competitor’s fighter aircraft, the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk. Curtiss production was running flat out and the British felt that the licensed manufacturing of a proven, fairly decent design was the fastest way to acquire the aircraft they knew they were going to need.

Dutch Kindelburger, North American Aviation’s enterprising President had a better idea. He proposed they start from scratch on a brand new design which Kindelburger believed would be better and could be ready sooner than setting up a production line for an unfamiliar aircraft. In a little over a hundred days, North American Aviation rolled out the NA-73X, and flew it for the first time a couple of months later. The British ordered the first 320 copies of the aircraft which would eventually be known as the P-51 or more simply, and more poetically, as the ‘Mustang’.

Surprisingly, the initial results were not spectacular. However, in what would inadvertently become a metaphor for the collaboration of Allies in the latter stages of World War II, the Mustang really began to realize it’s potential when it was harnessed to the British Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. The new powerplant vastly improved the speed and altitude capabilities of the aircraft. The Mustang’s fuselage was then reworked to incorporate a high-visibility bubble canopy and with that, the transformation to the ‘D’ model was complete. The iconic P-51D is the most common variant still flying in significant numbers today. No sight is more compelling than the Mustang’s glinting, polished aluminum skin running free in a clear blue sky.

The Mustang was versatile but was most notable for its long range bomber escort role. This tactic involved a group of Mustangs flying in close formation with the bombers and defending them from enemy attack, dramatically increasing the odds of the bombers getting to their target. The Mustangs would then loiter in place until they could once again shepherd their charges safely back to base. Because of their robustness, speed, range, agility and reliability, the Mustang quickly drew a devoted following of those ‘in the saddle’ and those that they were assigned to protect. Nose art, as it came to be called, often involved painting the name of the pilot’s wife or girlfriend on the Mustang’s cowl to personalize the aircraft and cement a relationship that easily transcended simple pilot and plane.

It’s a profound affection that has lasted to this day both with those who experienced the aircraft first hand and then with the generations to follow and in whose hands the Mustang legend would only grow. Thankfully, many are still around, a further testament to how well they were built in the first place. If you have ever heard a Mustang do a low pass at high speed, you already know it is truly one of the greatest sounds you are ever going to hear. One that will truly make the nostrils flare and the hair on the back of your neck stand on end.

Marilyn Monroe barely lived long enough to see The Misfits released in 1961. Clark Gable didn’t live that long, having been hospitalized with a heart attack a few days after the movie wrapped, and then dying just a few days after that. Monroe infamously died of a drug overdose in June of 1962. The Misfits was the last movie for both of them which, in an ironic twist of fate, was the movie’s eventual savior at least as a topic of critical conversation. It was a box office disaster when it was released but went on to considerable acclaim and has stood the test of time.

It could have been the director’s choice of black & white film, or the fact that it was written by noted playwright Arthur Miller — Monroe’s husband at the time — or maybe it was just the style back then but the movie has a very stagey feel. Everybody is overacting a little but particularly Monroe, who was said to have hated herself in the finished movie. It’s understandable, because the making of The Misfits was set against a backdrop of Monroe’s various real life addictions. You see brief flashes of her brilliance embedded in an otherwise ordinary effort no doubt inhibited by drugs and alcohol. Production of the movie had to be halted periodically so that she could detox.

The Misfits comes alive in roughly the last third of the movie, when the main characters, Gay, Roslyn, Perce and Guido head out into the Nevada desert to round up what’s left of a herd of mustangs. The round up reflects every distasteful notion of gathering these animals up for whatever fate eventually was to befall them. A lynch pin for the movie is when Monroe’s character Roslyn realizes that the round up is anything but an innocent way of making of a living, as Clark Gable’s character Gay would have her believe. When Gay says the mustangs are to be slaughtered for nothing more than dog food, she basically loses it. Perhaps this is because one of the unsung, uncredited heroes of The Misfits is Gay’s dog, an animated lout of a pooch that seems have a genuine, unconditional affection for the real life Monroe.

The scenes of the roundup, assuming they reflect real methods, are nothing short of appalling. The process starts with an airborne spotter firing a shotgun to scare the mustangs out of the hills in which they were found. The aircraft then swoops in low over the terrified, meager herd to get them out onto the dry lakebed. They are intercepted by a flatbed truck which picks up the chase so they can be lassoed with ropes attached to heavy tires which the horse is forced to drag across the desert to exhaustion. The mustangs are finally manhandled to the ground, hobbled, and left to bake in the sun until such time they can be loaded and taken to auction where they might fetch six cents a pound. For anybody with even a shred of empathy, the scenes are horrific.

Of course, the eponymous misfits are superficially the mustangs, in the sense that they do not fit into the landscape and hence are available for whatever purpose we choose for them. The real misfits, of course are Gay, Roslyn, Perce and Guido stuck trying to live a life that really no longer exists. The pivotal scene in which Gay wrestles a mustang to the ground and ties it up, only to set it free again underscores the theme that while change is inevitably coming, it will only come on Gay’s terms – our terms. As he says “It’s like ropin’ a dream now. I just gotta another find another way to be alive, that’s all. If there is one, any more.”

In a movie loaded with irony and metaphors of all kinds, the greatest irony of all is that an animal which represents the very essence of freedom the film’s characters crave, that so many real life mustangs would eventually meet the gritty, miserable demise the movie depicts.

In at least one version of the story, John Najjar, the executive stylist for an exciting new Ford car coming out late in 1964, was inspired by the name, shape and legacy of the P-51 aircraft. When the time came, he suggested a name for the new car: ‘Mustang’. It stuck and with that the beginning of over half a century of continuous development of the original Pony Car.

The first of the line, introduced as a 1964-and-a-half model, was a huge hit. On the inside the car was very modest, based on the recycled parts and assemblies from other Ford cars of the time in order to reduce cost. The styling of the vehicle, however, was entirely new and proved popular. It sold over 300,000 units in the initial model year, and took only 18 months to reach one million units sold. It proved that image, coupled with a powerful, compelling metaphor could triumph over substance, at least at the outset.

In each subsequent model year the Mustang got a little bigger and little heavier and a little more needlessly adorned. This trend reached an apex, of sorts, in the late 1960s with the Boss 302 and Boss 429 variants. It was with the help of Hollywood, however, that the Mustang achieved near mythological status in the hands of Steve McQueen as Bullitt. The movie has what is arguably the best car chase that has ever been filmed with the Mustang 390 GT 2+2 Fastback right at the centre. McQueen, at the same time, is the human embodiment of the car and the beast from which it got its name.

It couldn’t last and it didn’t. The early 1970s were not kind to the Mustang. It somehow managed to foreshadow the oil crisis of 1973 with a return to its original size. The Mustang II, as it was called, was based on the Ford Pinto of exploding gas tank infamy. It was back to the original dimensions but heavier and with less power necessitated by new safety and fuel efficiency rules that were coming into effect at that time. It was also thoroughly adulterated by efforts to make it more ‘luxurious’. The ads at the time said “you’re actually surrounded by soft, rich vinyl [and] cut-pile carpeting that runs wall-to-wall”. It sounds bad for a house, let alone a car.

In the greatest of indignities, the designers of the Mustang II inexplicably redesigned the unmistakable Mustang logo so the poor nag was captured in more of a idle cantor rather than the full, energetic gallop of the earlier cars. The implicit message was to expect less. It turned out much less. The Mustang II may have been vaguely reminiscent of the original design in its sheet metal but most would say the car had completely lost is soul. You wondered, at the time, whether it would even survive.

This automotive purgatory was to last until 1978 when Ford finally realized the error of its ways and introduced the third generation of the Mustang. It also had limited performance but was generally back on the right track. The effort was marred, however, by some odd styling choices including a reversal of the car’s ‘face’. Instead of sweeping slightly aft from top to bottom, the angle of the grille was roughly reversed giving the car a severe underbite — maybe from taking it on the chin all those years.

The Mustang’s persona was truly restored in its fifth generation starting in 2005, led by bringing back many of the styling cues of the original car including the unmistakable grille and its aggressive, aftward-from-top-to-bottom rake. It was brilliant marketing. The tweenagers and teenagers who lusted after that original car were now in their fifties and more likely to have the disposable income to make their childhood dreams finally come true. The galloping mustang was back, both on the grille and in the soul of the machine which it adorned.

An uncharitable, unsentimental commentator would more accurately describe mustangs as feral horses; wild once, domesticated, and then gone wild again. An even less charitable commentator, armed with a late 20th century vocabulary, would call them an invasive species with all of the attendant negative consequences. Maybe as a result of that, we felt we had the permission to indiscriminately hunt them down to a population estimated at around 25,000 in the 1950s.

As a result of that willful slaughter — or maybe it was the searing scenes in The Misfits seen by Members of Congress less than a decade previously — legislation was enacted to protect the mustangs. The Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 made mustangs wards of the Bureau of Land Management. With human intervention in the form of protection, mustang populations began to rebound. But with their returning numbers, the debate had once again been rekindled about their role in the North American landscape. On one side is the fabled place they hold in popular imagination. On the other is the fact that they, as an introduced species, were competition for other introduced species — cattle and sheep, for example.

With management comes the responsibility to solve whatever problems result from that management. First amongst these, overpopulation. Stop gap measures include the establishment of management areas, holding pens and semi-permanent grassland pastures. Sadly, there are now more mustangs in captivity than there are in the wild. Noble attempts to re-domesticate mustangs have been partially successful, but the supply of adoptable horses continues to exceed demand by a large measure. Tragically, the BLM is considering euthanasia as a less cruel, but certainly ironic means of protecting mustangs in the long term.

Perhaps the notion of the wild mustang was always a fable on which we could hang our own hopes, dreams and desires. That’s why we try to take their spirit and infuse it in the other objects of our creation and our subsequent desire. We struggle to depict them in a manner that both idealizes and yet respects them. As our construct, they reinforce our connection with the land without surrendering to it. They’re wild, but on terms that we dictate.

In the end, however, we may have invested more in the imagined idea of the mustang than it was ever able to bear in real life.

©2016 Terence C. Gannon

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