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EARNING HIS SPURS

The figure of the windburned, rawboned, self-sufficient loner has always stood at the heart of the frontier myth. If anything, he's still getting taller.

Witness Colorado Cowboy: The Bruce Ford Story. Arthur Elgort's spare, straightforward documentary about the five-time world rodeo champion is cause for local pride--Ford operates a ranch near Greeley--but its underlying message is universal: The authentic American looks you straight in the eye, and he rides bucking horses. Like his father before him and his son to follow.

"I'm a cowboy," this archetype tells the camera, his noble blond mustache drooping. "It's born in me and bred in me to be a cowboy. It's the life I love."

Sure is. Despite the jarring all-night drives in the pickup truck to distant arenas. Despite countless passages through the treeless, trailer-strewn towns of the prairie. Despite the bad draws and the bad luck. It's a life Ford's son Royce is likely to repeat. We see the same resolve in his eyes.

Filmmaker Elgort, a New York fashion photographer, clearly is enamored of the West. But he isn't Ralph Lauren come to the dude ranch. Shooting in stark black and white, he takes the time to get under Ford's skin, where he discovers not only one tough hombre but a born-again Christian, a devoted family man (wife and three kids) and a student of his craft who pores over the videotapes and works hard to get just the right feel to his rigging.

We get general glimpses of rodeos from Cheyenne to Las Vegas to the hinterlands, but the hero never leaves the screen for long, and Elgort never strays from his hard, rewarding life. Informed at the National Finals that he's about to become one of the few competitors to reach the million-dollar earnings mark, Ford murmurs, nearly out of mike-shot: "'Bout twenty cents a mile."

You wonder what century this is and, with sudden reassurance in the quest of mankind, answer: Absolutely. It's the twentieth.

 
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