A now-vanished slice of rural Montana life captured in a documentary film is receiving rave reviews from urban critics.
“Sweetgrass: The Last Ride of the American Cowboy” documents Big Timber ranchers Lawrence and Elaine Allestad’s 3,000 head of sheep being herded to and tended in high mountain pastures in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area. The filmmakers bill it as “an unsentimental elegy to the American West.”
The film will be shown at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula on Feb. 17 at 7:30 p.m. in the Wilma Theater. But it already has received critical acclaim in New York City and been shown in film festivals in Berlin and Vancouver. The film is not scheduled to be shown anywhere else in Montana.
Although they haven’t seen the final cut, the Allestads said they’ve watched about 300 hours of footage that filmmaker Lucien Castaing-Taylor sent them. The entire Allestad family plans to attend the Missoula showing.
“I liked it,” said Elaine, 59. “I think it’s interesting because there’s no narration. It’s just pure, real ranching. It doesn’t lead you one way or another. You just leave with what you saw.”
She said Lawrence, 69, was bothered by how much he was recorded cursing in the film.
“He didn’t realize he cussed that much,” she said. “But it’s pretty typical of working with livestock.”
Nothing stays the same
A lot has changed since Castaing-Taylor began filming in 2001. The Allestads have downsized their sheep herd, keeping only 200 head of the 1,700 they once owned. They sold their ranch near Rapelje and invested in another near Opheim, near the Canadian border. They live in Big Timber, a sheepherder’s wagon now a front-yard lawn ornament.
Castaing-Taylor filmed three of their last trips into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. The family sold its federal grazing lease in 2006 to an environmental group, the final chapter of almost 100 years of high-mountain summer sheep grazing.
“Originally, there were 30-some bands that went up there,” Elaine said. “They all dwindled out for one reason or another — they went to cattle or went broke, or they gave up because of all the government regulations.”
By the time the Allestads sold their lease, they were the only ones still grazing stock in meadows just north of Yellowstone National Park in ruggedly beautiful places like Hellroaring and Buffalo creeks in the Gallatin National Forest.
“It would take us two weeks to get to where we dropped off the sheep,” Elaine said.
She first started making the trip with Lawrence after they were married 40 years ago. Lawrence began when he was only 9, the son of a Norwegian immigrant who started ranching in the 1920s. Back then, sheep were king in Sweet Grass County, which counted more than 100,000.
“We thought nothing of it to put them on a 150-mile round trip,” Lawrence said. “That wasn’t very scary to us. I think it was actually kind of fun to put them on the road at daylight.”
After the Allestads’ children were born, it became part of the family routine to move the sheep into the mountains as a working vacation. Then they’d make another trip into the high country by horseback in midsummer to check on the herders and mix in some fishing and camping. They would also visit the same areas in the fall to hunt elk.
The Allestads were introduced to Castaing-Taylor by a landowner who lived near the Boulder River, the drainage along which the family herded the sheep into the mountains. He mentioned Lawrence’s idea of preserving the sheep drive on film to Castaing-Taylor, who visited the Allestads in 2001 to begin pursuing the project.
Castaing-Taylor, now the director of the Sensory Ethnography Laboratory and a professor at Harvard University, along with his partner and producer Ilisa Barbash, took eight years to complete the film. They also created nine other films out of the footage they shot while traveling with the sheep and spending time in the Big Timber area.
“Spending the summers high in the Rocky Mountains, among the herders, the sheep, and their predators, was a transcendent experience that will stay with me for the rest of my days,” Castaing-Taylor said in a statement on the movie’s Web site. He could not be reached for comment.
New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis called the movie “astonishingly beautiful, even if the image quality of the video sometimes disappoints. Mr. Castaing-Taylor has an extraordinary eye: he takes you right into the center of the herd so it almost feels as if you’re jostling alongside the animals as they rush for food or surge up a ravine.”
Now good friends
On the “Sweetgrass” Web site, Barbash, an associate curator of visual anthropology at The Peabody Museum, recounts seeing Castaing-Taylor after his first summer of filming in the mountains.
“When Lucien got down from the mountains that fall, he was unrecognizable — bearded beyond belief, 20 pounds lighter, carrying a ton of footage, and limping. He would later be diagnosed with trauma-induced advanced degenerative arthritis, caused by carrying the equipment day and night, and need double foot surgery.”
Elaine said that over the years, her family and the filmmakers have become good friends. But in the beginning, walking around with a microphone clipped on and being followed by a camera was pretty odd, she said.
“After a while you forget about it,” she said, evidenced by one sheepherder’s mournful cell phone call to his mother from atop a mountain. Sheepherders John Ahern and Pat Connolly have feature roles in the movie.
Barbash and Castaing-Taylor joked about how much time they spent filming, going back for two more summers. Capturing the work and sheep drive became important to them to create a time capsule of a part of Western life that would soon end.
“While the journey is tremendously hard, it is undertaken not just for the literal goal of reaching (sweet) grass, but also to carry on tradition against all sorts of odds,” Barbash said.
The Allestads agree that it’s nice to have the now-vanished sheep drive documented on film for posterity’s sake. And although the family is now almost out of the sheep business, and Lawrence would like to get rid of them entirely, Elaine said she keeps “hanging in there.”
“I like sheep,” she said. “They’re easier to handle. And you need them to take care of the weeds.”
BRETT FRENCH. February 14 2010. Billings Gazette.