Donkey Power: The History Of Cinema’s Favourite Sidekick

There's a trend for donkeys in 2023 Oscars favourites, but cinema's relationship with the animal traces much further back, finds Thomas H. Sheriff

The day before the 2023 Academy Award nominees were announced, Horse and Hound magazine ran a story about neither horses nor hounds, but donkeys. “Donkeys are ‘capturing hearts worldwide’ as two films starring them are tipped for Oscar nominations,” ran the top line, nodding to the successes of Martin McDonaugh’s The Banshees of Inisherin and Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO.

Indeed, both films celebrate the humble equine in all its greyish glory. Jenny the donkey steals scenes from Colin Farrell and Kerry Condon in Banshees, while the titular EO makes a compelling hero in Skolimowski’s Cannes Jury Prize winner. Triangle of Sadness, another Best Picture contender, also features a donkey (although the less said about that one’s fate, the better).

The films’ award nominations were heralded by the Donkey Sanctuary, a British charity dedicated to the welfare of donkeys across the world. The organisation was “delighted” that donkeys were “finally getting their moment in the spotlight”, a spokesperson said. It’s been a big year for donkeys, but the Donkey Sanctuary is patently too modest: in fact, for a species with just 27,000 members in the UK, donkeys have had more than their share of the spotlight for millennia.

The biggest donkey celebrity this millennium is, well, Donkey. I am, of course, referring to Eddie Murphy’s character in Shrek – one of the most culturally pervasive films of the 2000s. Perhaps yet more famous is Eeyore, the morose friend of Winnie the Pooh, a ubiquitous presence in children’s literature, film and television since 1926.

Donkeys aren’t just for kids, though. EO was heavily inspired by Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, which also features a donkey as its protagonist, and was voted the 25th greatest film of all time in last year’s <i>Sight and Sound</i> poll. In Don Quixote, Sancho Panza’s most beloved friend – notably more so than his wife and daughter – is his loyal donkey Dapple, which he rides throughout the novel.

Going back even further, the list keeps growing. The only Ancient Roman novel to survive in Latin, Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, tells of a man turned into a donkey. And then there’s the Bible, which is full of important donkeys. Mary rode a donkey to Bethlehem, and Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem, fulfilling the Old Testament’s prophecy that “thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass.” (Zechariah 9:9)

The donkey’s illustrious cultural history notwithstanding, it is not an obvious choice for a character. The natural animal heroes are dogs and cats; our pets are the animals we understand and humanise the most. But even lesser-spotted creatures like lions, monkeys, or elephants are, in a way, culturally familiar.

Most fictional animals are human caricatures. One aspect of humanity, be it avarice, wiliness, sloth, or anything else, is accentuated in the representation of a creature. It’s one of the oldest ways humans have related to the world and to each other. Lions are brave, monkeys are cheeky, elephants never forget. These are bold, easily defined animals. Aesop’s fables use such creatures to their advantage by removing the need for exposition. A hare, famously quick, is clearly faster than a tortoise.

The donkey, however, has no obvious dominating characteristics; it isn’t synonymous with any one human trait. Its role, then, is more subtle and multifaceted.

On the one hand, donkeys are clearly a target for comedy. Visually, it’s hard to deny that they’re a little pathetic; the diminutive, rather less graceful cousin of the horse. It’s what allows some of the best slapstick in Shrek, the character’s exaggerated front teeth accentuating Murphy’s goofiness. Even the word itself may be primed for humour: comedic tradition, as well as some scientific research, suggests that words with a k sound in them are inherently funny.

There’s also often a perceived lack of intelligence or a general uselessness, an image created by the Greeks and encouraged by Shakespeare, who popularised the use of “ass” as an insult. The trope extends to everyday life, too: anyone who’s ever watched football has surely heard someone cry “he’s a right donkey!” at a hapless centre back.

But donkeys are more than just laughable fools: they span the spectrum of human emotions. Eeyore isn’t funny, he’s sad; his melancholy is his defining trait. Bresson’s Balthazar is forgotten and mistreated, the ever-silent witness to human cruelty and folly. Christ’s journey into Jerusalem signifies his humility: the son of God arrives not on a magnificent stallion or borne aloft by angels, but atop a simple donkey. And when video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to convey the idea of a stubborn gorilla, he chose the name Donkey Kong.

Comedy, pathos, strength, wisdom, meekness… The donkey is not a one-trick pony. Unlike the sly fox or the silly monkey, the donkey contains too many multitudes to only signify one part of a human; the donkey in fiction is human. The donkey is more than human.

As long-suffering beasts of burden, donkeys are one of the few animals to truly experience labour like a human – distinct from livestock whose bodies produce goods, donkeys must toil to be useful. And their mournful eyes seem to suggest that they’re somehow aware of this injustice; both Bresson and Skolimowski use closeups of donkeys’ eyes to devastating effect. Roger Ebert wrote that “Balthazar simply walks or waits, regarding everything with the clarity of a donkey who knows it is a beast of burden, and that its life consists of either bearing or not bearing.”

More than most humans, donkeys are stoical, diligently performing tasks, not with any extreme strength or speed (Mary arrives in Bethlehem only after all the inns are full) but with a quiet steadiness. When they do refuse work, their so-called stubbornness can seem like a commitment to values (the only time EO uses violence is to kick an exploitative fur trapper). Their gently comical appearance means that they never seem haughty or aloof (Donkey is often the moral core of the Shrek films, but is physically incapable of talking down to anyone). In Bresson’s film, Balthazar’s final custodian states it plainly: “He’s a saint.”

Bresson himself described Balthazar as “a living creature who’s completely humble, completely holy, and happens to be a donkey.” But Balthazar’s donkey-ness isn’t incidental, it’s essential. According to Skolimowski, donkeys “are gentle, caring, respectful, polite, and loyal. They live to the fullest in the present moment. They never show narcissism.” While humans are necessarily flawed characters, and most animals lend themselves to simple cartoons, donkeys can show us spiritual perfection.

Skolimowski also said that his donkey performers “do not skimp on the supposed intentions of their character; and never discuss their director’s vision. They are excellent actors.” Despite this, none of the donkeys featured in this year’s raft of nominee films will be returning to the stable yard with a glittering award. This is probably for the best: a donkey winning an Oscar would be like Saint Anthony winning at bingo.

But amongst the inevitable glamour and pomp of the awards season, let the final nod go to the humble donkey. Its simple, transcendent beauty makes an example for us all.

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