"excellently captures the fierce drive that brings people from all over the world to the Mongol Derby"
There are a lot of taxing sporting competitions all over the world, from the Tour de France to the Clipper Round The World Yacht Race. The Mongol Derby is one of those challenges - a 1000km horse ride across the punishing plains of Mongolia, it takes thoughtful planning, horsemanship and a whole load of guts. Premiering at Glasgow Film Festival, Ivo Marloh’s documentary follows the brave competitors as they test their limits in a race to the finish.
The forty competitors come from all over the world. We meet Devan, a young American woman who is fiercely competitive and ready to risk everything to complete the race. There’s also Monde, a horse trainer from South Africa, two jump jockeys from Ireland and a host of other people from all kinds of backgrounds. They share a real ambition to have an amazing life experience, evidenced not only by their personal risk but also by the fact that it requires a lot of training and just under £13,000 to enter the race.
The race is set over nine days, recreating an old Mongolian postal system first used in 1224. Riders pause at 25 pit stops along the way to change their horse, where they have to make sure that their horse passes veterinary tests or risk a penalty.
As horses tend to do, the mounts become real characters in their own right in this film. Taken in from the plains as semi-wild, it’s a lottery for the riders as to which horse they leave each station on. It’s fascinating to watch as they attempt to mount particularly difficult ones, or forge affectionate bonds with the quieter ponies.
Most engrossing is the quiet Monde - a noted horse whisperer at home, his skill with horses is keenly apparent as he gets given more and more challenging ponies to ride, all while handling it with understated competence and empathy. His choice to treat the race as an opportunity to learn makes for an interesting contrast to Devan, whose drive to stay in the front means that she barely pauses for breath. In this race, your experience certainly does seem to be what you make of it.
There are some real heart-stopping moments in this documentary, as we witness up close all the dramatic moments. Marloh pulls off a technical feat in capturing as much as he does, from the vast landscape to the most visceral moments of action. That said, you’re left wondering how much footage had to be cut or missed to get the final product. I could’ve happily watched several more hours to see a little more of some competitors and spend more time on their journey.
It’s one of the risks of tackling such an expansive subject with a camera. A similar documentary called Unbranded came out a few years ago, following four cowboys as they trekked from the Mexican and Canadian borders. That one only needed to focus on one united group and I commented at the time that it must have been a considerable task. Here, Marloh has to balance forty competitors at different stages across a huge route. As much as it would have been nice to see more of their journeys, as well as the cultural impact of the race itself, it is impressive how much was captured in just under 90 minutes.
All The Wild Horses is an engrossing documentary that, like the competitors it studies, is hobbled by time. Yet it excellently captures the fierce drive that brings people from all over the world to the Mongol Derby, as well as the fickle natures of horses and the constant risks that must have once been experienced by Mongolian messengers as they rode that same route years ago.