Hollywood in general does not have the greatest rep for getting anything right. It’s a big day in the movie theatre when a film actually, you know, makes the effort. In the meantime there’s a fair amount of horses as trucks, horses as very large, constantly whinnying dogs, cowboys flapping their arms for takeoff, and what is with this universal “Hyah!” to make the horse go?
So let’s talk movies. I just recently caught Secretariat on video–loved it. It’s been criticized for “too much human, not enough horse,” and there are historical and factual elisions and alterations, but somehow that didn’t bother me. What made it really work for me was the quiet, unassuming, unspectacular ways the film got things right.
He isn’t pushed to the fore or in any way anthropomorphized, but the star of the film really is Secretariat. He’s always there; everything revolves around him. The human drama is, at base, about him. And there are a couple of moments where the film really gets it: where you see the bond the horse has with his owner. She’s not his trainer or his rider, but she is his human. And you get to see that.
A girl and her stallion–no drama, no fanfare. Just there. Just right.
For contrast, there’s that thing called The Horse Whisperer, which is a whole lot of heavy breathing and overwrought drama with a horse for an excuse. He’s not even the same breed as in the book–in the book he’s a Morgan. In the movie he’s a Quarter Horse. It’s not vital to the film, and it doesn’t affect anything really, but it kind of sums up the general not-there-ness of the whole thing. All the “whispering” and the so-called “training” and “rehabbing” add up to “Nobody involved in this film has any real understanding of either horses or horse rehab.” It’s all just a vehicle to get the romance from Point A to Point Bathos.
Sometimes the change in horse breed is downright ludicrous but the film has almost enough charm to carry it off. Hidalgo is based on a tall tale–there’s nothing factual about the “true story” it’s based on–and yet it’s a surprising lot of fun. Viggo Mortensen is a real horseman who really connects with his horses (he bought the horse he starred with in this movie, as he did the one in The Lord of the Rings), and besides, well, Viggo. Plus the pleasure of seeing Lady Anne Blunt in a movie–she’s played as a bit of femme fatale, but it kind of works.
The ludicrousness is actually the result of a logistical problem. The original horse meant to star in the film was a Spanish Mustang, like the horse in the story–i.e. a horse with the toughness and stamina to actually carry off an endurance race through the desert. This horse ended up being unavailable, however, so someone had the brilliant idea of substituting a very spectacular, very sweet and cute and trainable Paint horse. Which made for nice visuals, but oy, and ouch.
A Paint is a relative of the Quarter Horse–the king of the quarter-mile. Built like a bulldog and designed for blazing speed over a very short distance, after which he promptly poops out. If he’s ranch bred and properly conditioned he can go all day at a fairly slow rate, but he isn’t noted for his ability to excel in long-distance races. He’s a sprinter, not a marathoner.
So here’s this terribly cute horse, very flashy and nicely put together for what he is, and seriously, by day 3 he’d be dead. He’s just not designed for the job he’s supposed to be doing.
But I still enjoy the movie. And the horse is adorable.
So–how about you? What are your favorite and dis-favorite movie equines? If you’re not a horse person, our panel of excellent horsepeople can weigh in on the pros and cons of a given film–and we’ll be happy to opine on actors who can ride versus actors who, well, the less said about sacks and potatoes the better.
Want to know more about horses and writing and how they intersect? Here’s where to begin. Questions answered, terms defined, and links, many links, to further investigations. With copious illustrations.
Just $4.99 in all the popular formats (including Kindle, Nook, and Sony e-reader) from the Book View Cafe e-bookstore.
Or if fictional horses are more to your taste, try A Wind in Cairo, the magical story of a prince, a Turk, and an Arabian stallion. And for further historical delights, try The Dagger and the Cross: A Novel of the Crusades and its prequel, Alamut.