From Trigger to Seabiscuit, Hollywood has always loved horses. Though it’s sometimes fallen afoul of other horse lovers (actress Loretta Swit, aka Hotlips Houlihan from TV’s M*A*S*H, was one of several animal rights activists to picket the premiere of Conan the Barbarian for the alleged use of wires to trip horses in the battle scenes), Tinseltown has also bred quite a field of equine contenders over the past 80 years. The following is not a canonical list—it’s just some horsey things we like.
The Black Stallion
Boy plus animal equals love—everyone knows that—and many movies for children have been based on that premise. But few have been shot as beautifully as Caroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion (1979), with its spectacular first act. Alec (Kelly Reno) survives a sinking ship by tying himself to a wild black stallion. The two end up on an African beach, sole survivors and inhabitants, and begin an uneasy courtship. The horse saves Alec’s life by surprising a menacing cobra and stomping it to death, and eventually allows Alec to befriend and ride him, the ocean vistas epic, the music soaring, the heart thundering with emotion. The movie moves onto more familiar turf once the two are rescued, and Alec learns to race Black with the help of a friendly retired curmudgeon played by a low-key Mickey Rooney. The almost wordless script is a lesson in what action can say, and a guess at what animals feel.
Secretariat may be the most famous horse in life, but the most famous horse in cinema is a dead horse. When studio head Jack Woltz (John Marley) wakes up in bed one beautiful California morning, he turns over, feels warm, wet confusion and then throws back his covers to reveal the bloody head of his prize thoroughbred—a message from the Corleone family. The judiciously brief image is an indelible part of our screen memory, its true resonance and power a measure of our primal affinity with Equus.
Despite the profusion of famous horse movies and famous movie horses, the loving cup for Single Most Significant Horse in a Non-horse Movie goes to the unicorn (OK, but it’s really just a horse with a horn attached) in the director’s cut of Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner. How significant? In the original, without the roughly eight seconds of unicorn footage, Deckard (Harrison Ford) may or may not be a replicant himself. With the unicorn footage restored, he almost certainly is, and rival cop Gaff (Edward James Olmos) knows it. Hope I didn’t spoil it for you. Incidentally, when professor of rhetoric, feminist critic and self-professed Blade Runner authority Kaja Silverman spoke about the movie at UM in the mid-’90s, a post-lecture audience Q&A session revealed her total ignorance of Deckard as replicant—lending further credence to my cherished assertion that blinkered ismists like Silverman should butt the hell out of the movies.
Horse racing was never so internationally glamorous as it was in this 1946 Alfred Hitchcock film starring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant as spies in Rio de Janeiro. Elsa (Bergman) is forced to receive the attentions of Alexander Sebastian (Claude Raines) because the OSS-type agency she shares with Devlin (Grant) believes him to be a Nazi in hiding. Knowing Alex likes the ponies, Elsa attends with Alex and his mother, where she “pretends” to bump into Mr. Devlin. The tension mounts with the cat-and-mouse dynamics among the suspicious parties, with jealous Alex egged on by his mother while Elsa tries lamely to hide her love for Dev. All of this takes place in the stands. Field glasses a must.
The Philadelphia Story
Katharine Hepburn’s prowess as horsewoman Tracy Lord is just one of the things she has over her dull, rigid fiancé George Kittredge (John Howard) in George Cukor’s 1940 masterpiece. The riding stable on the Lord property bespeaks wealth, and Tracy’s athletic ability can be credited to a privileged childhood. And ex-husband Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) is also quite the horseman. Tracy bursts out laughing when she sees George in his new riding clothes, and then pushes him into the dirt, which she rubs all over him. You see? She’s not really a frigid ice queen! There’s hope for her yet. Naturally, Kate looks splendidly chic in her habit.
The Man from Snowy River
OK, here’s the pitch: “The story of a boy suddenly alone in the world. The men who challenge him. And the girl who helps him become a man.” Add a few plot details—the boy, Jim, goes to work for an Australian cattle tycoon and falls in love with the tycoon’s daughter—and it sounds just like All the Pretty Horses, minus the Mexican jail and horrific violence. The whole thing culminates in our hero riding off into the mountains to capture the majestic stallion he was accused of letting loose. If that’s not enough to hook you, the film features a 40-rider, 90-stallion chase scene, was inspired by an epic poem by A. B. “Banjo” Patterson, and stars Kirk Douglas in a dual role.