When I was nine or ten this movie came out, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. I didn’t know what it was about when I originally saw it, or any of the history behind the story, but it entranced me from the first.
It’s the story of Sonora Webster, an orphan girl growing up in the Depression era South. When her aunt informs her that she’s giving Sonora over to the state the headstrong girl instead runs away and pretty much joins the circus. Sonora wants to be a diving girl. This concept completely blew my mind when I was a kid. It consists of a tall ramp with a large pool of water set up at it’s base. A horse runs up the ramp where a girl is waiting. She jumps on the horse’s back just in time for it, with her on it’s back, to dive into the pool of water. It looks a little like this;
Basically, I thought it was absolutely insane. Who would deliberately get on a horse that’s about to jump off of something tall? I used to ride, like any good little girl, and one time the lovely palomino I was riding has the exquisite courtesy to slip on a rock. It was pretty terrifying. Like getting into a car accident. That loss of control is horrifying. And what I experienced only lasted for a quarter of a second, I can’t quite imagine giving over to that level of control loss. I really just can’t imagine what it would be like to be in free fall while sitting astride a horse. Completely terrifying.
And, of course, completely brilliant. I wished that this sort of thing exisited in my day and age. But more so I wished I had the presense of mind and ambition of this character. Who… isn’t really a character. Sonora Webster, the real Sonora Webster, was born in 1904 and became a diving girl in Doc Carver’s show in 1923. She eventually married Carver’s son, Al, and headlined the show in Atlantic City’s Steel Pier. In 1931 Sonora was blinded in an accident when she hit the water with her eyes opened and suffered retinal detachment, but continued to dive for eleven more years. The woman herself was not one hundred percent happy with her depiction in the film, because she felt it focused too heavily on her injury. The real Sonora said that getting back on her horse was the most natural thing in the world and not quite the miraculous event that was portrayed in the film. But, as a kid watching this movie I was impressed. And moved. And all that sort of thing. So, it’s sensationalized. Of course it’s sensationalized. But, I still think it’s a brilliant movie, which served it’s purpose. And, while I like history and while I enjoy reading about the real life story of Mrs. Carver it wasn’t her autobiography (A Girl and Five Brave Horses, Martino Fine Books, 1961) that inspired me. It was this movie. So, perhaps it’s fictional Sonora that’s my icon and not the real life version.
I have been drawn to rebellious girls my whole life. Girls who know they’re own mind but always have a little trouble along the way. The one’s who succeed despite great adversity. Usually because their view of things doesn’t match up with everyone else’s view of things.
Sonora was played by Gabrielle Anwar. I follow people I used to know. Actors who were in movies I loved always get a free pass. Anwar had a few successes (For Love or Money, Scent of a Woman, a terrible terrible prequel to Sherlock Holmes, Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead…) but then she dropped out of sight for a good while before appearing again in season one of The Tudors and then, of course, people probably know her best as Fiona Glenanne on Burn Notice. I think she’s gotten too thin now, all angles, but to me she’ll always be Sonora Webster Carver; blind, wild hearted, diving girl who never gave up and who inspired me as a kid. I think that’s a fine legacy.