‘The Power of the Dog’ is Jane Campion’s Western drama film, set in 1920s Montana, that focuses on an uncouth cowboy named Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch). Touching upon themes of identity, homosexuality, and vengeance, the film revolves around Phil’s interactions with his brother, George (Jesse Plemons), his sister-in-law, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and his step-nephew, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
As the film progresses, we realize that Phil structures his entire identity around the memory of Bronco Henry. The invisible character of Bronco, loved by all at the ranch, gives us a peek into Phil’s psyche, sorrows, and desires. Naturally, you must be curious to find out more about him. Here’s everything you need to know about Bronco Henry in ‘The Power of the Dog.’ SPOILERS AHEAD.
Who is Bronco Henry in The Power of the Dog?
‘The Power of the Dog’ constantly sees Phil talking about his mentor, idol, and best friend Bronco Henry. We first hear about this character when Phil goes cattle riding with George and suggests that they go up into the hills to cook fresh elk liver on coals, just the way Bronco had shown them. Later, after calling his brother a “chubby know-nothing,” Phil reveals that it is Bronco who taught the two brothers all about ranching, their livelihood. Later, the ranchers raise a toast to the late cowboy. It is obvious that Bronco is a well-respected and oft-remembered individual, a symbol of the ideal rural man.
Although we never get to see Bronco, we do find out a lot about him through Phil’s behaviors and conversations. Clearly, Bronco takes up a huge portion of Phil’s mind. Everything that Phil knows about ranching is due to Bronco, and so every menial act reminds him of his best friend. One night, when Phil hears George and Rose having sex, he leaves the house to go and lovingly clean Bronco’s saddle, situated under a golden plaque commemorating him. It is then that we begin to suspect that their relationship was beyond friendship, at least from Phil’s perspective.
Later, we see Phil avoiding the naked cowboys swimming in the pond and choosing to go to his own secluded glade. He takes out a cotton scarf from his pants, embroidered with the letters “BH” for Bronco Henry, and rubs it over his skin before seemingly masturbating with it. Thus, it is apparent that Bronco, who in the year 1925 has been dead for 21 years, continues to be Phil’s object of affection.
Later, when Phil begins to warm up to Peter, he divulges more information about Bronco. Phil had been a teenager, just like Peter, when he first met his mentor. He had been mesmerized by Bronco’s skills — the man could make any horse jump and was an excellent hunter, despite having started ranching later in life. Additionally, only Bronco could see the dog-shaped shadow in the hills, a testament to his sharp observational skills and imaginative thinking. In fact, Phil starts to like Peter more when he finds out that the boy can see the shadow as well because it reminds him of happier days with his friend. Now, if you’re curious about whether Bronco is based on a real person, we’ve got you covered!
Is Bronco Henry Based on a Real Person?
Yes, Bronco Henry is partially based on a real person. However, it is to be noted that Thomas Savage, whose eponymous 1967 book is the source material of Campion’s film, simply took the name of one of the most renowned cowboys from his region to ascribe to his idealistic character of Bronco. The real Bronco Henry was a horseman from Lemhi County, Idaho, well known in the Great Plains and the Midwest for his cowboy skills. The character of Bronco, entirely fictional otherwise, appears in Savage’s other works as well, such as ‘Lona Hanson’ and ‘For Mary, With Love.’
It is understandable why Savage took a famous cowboy and turned him into the idol of his novel’s anti-hero, Phil. When Phil says that his best friend was the “greatest rider I never knew,” it becomes obvious that Bronco’s name is supposed to invoke feelings of awe and respect amongst ranchers. Phil bases his entire idea of a “real man” on Bronco’s personality; it makes sense that a closeted homosexual man wants to look up to an individual in the most masculine of professions. However, the fictional Bronco and the real-life Bronco share no similarities apart from their name and profession.
Phil also talks about how Bronco saved his life on a cold night by pressing their bodies together to generate heat. When Peter asks if they were naked, Phil simply chuckles. There is a strong undercurrent of homoeroticism here, and Phil seems to be in love with Bronco. However, there is no official record of the real Bronco being queer. Thus, the character of Bronco is entirely fictional even though his name is borrowed from a real-life horseman who was famous during Savage’s youth.