For my birthday, my sister got me a new book, “Hollywood Hoofbeats” by Petrine Day Mitchum and Audrey Pavia. Now, I’ve only started flipping through, it’s loaded with stories and amazing photos, there’s a lot to take in, but there’s some great history as well. One story in particular that I wanted to share…
In an interview with NPR’s Dave Davies, Mitchum shares how the American Humane Society’s oversight of the treatment of animal actors came about. This can also be found on the book’s website, http://www.hollywoodhoofbeats.net
DAVIES: That film was particularly tough on a lot of horses, right?
MITCHUM: Yes. That film – that 1936 movie “Charge Of The Light Brigade” is just stunning in the amount of carnage of horses and injuries to stunt riders as well. Errol Flynn, the star of the film, was really unaware of what was going to happen to all these horses when the charge began. And he was completely sickened to see horses go down. And, you know, they shot it over and over again, so there were – just – it was appalling.
Interestingly enough, as a sidebar, there was one trained falling horse in the film. But that’s one out of many. Anyway, Flynn was so outraged and so despondent about this that he actually went public and talked about the misuse of horses. And this was the beginning of the American Humane Association’s oversight of animal actors in film, which endures to today, which is a wonderful, wonderful thing. And when you go see a film and you see their little imprint and the no-animals-were-harmed-in-the-making-of-this-film, you’d better believe that no animals were harmed in the making of the film. So we have Mr. Flynn to thank for that wonderful advocacy for equine actors.
DAVIES: And in that film, “The Charge Of The Light Brigade,” were horses actually killed?
MITCHUM: Yes, they were. If they weren’t killed on the spot, their legs were broken so badly they had to be destroyed.
DAVIES: So what was the more humane way of making a horse fall?
MITCHUM: Well, the humane way of making a horse fall is actually centuries old. It’s an old battlefield technique of teaching a horse to fall so that – I mean, it’s not for a very good reason on the battlefield – so that you can fall a horse and use him as a shield.
But as it has evolved as really an art in the film business, it’s a process by where the horse is trained very, very slowly, starting at a standstill. The trainer will pick up the horse’s – one of the horse’s front legs, maybe tie it up and slowly push him over – always onto soft ground – very, very carefully done so that the horse lands on his shoulder and he’s not hurt. And once the horse is confident doing that – that he’s not going to get hurt – then they’ll start doing it at a walk and then at a trot and then finally, at a gallop.
This can take months to teach a horse, and not every horse is going to go for it. I mean, it’s a very strange thing to do. But some horses just trust their trainer enough and have the athletic ability to do it. And from what I heard from talking to stunt men who trained their own falling horses, which is usually the case, they had horses who actually came to love it and anticipate it and were real star athletes.
DAVIES: Yeah. So you have the horse galloping along, and there’s an appointed spot, which – where the ground is softer and there’s a bit of padding – and then they give the horse the signal, and the horse rolls in a way that’s safe.
MITCHUM: Yes. And you can tell a trained fall when you’re watching a film by looking for the horse’s head – looking at the horse’s head. And as the horse is galloping along, the trainer will pull the horse’s head, usually to the left, and he will fall on the opposite shoulder. So he’s taking the weight off of the outside by pulling the horse’s head to the inside and then cueing him to fall over onto the other side. And of course, the stunt man is wearing a saddle that has rubber stirrups on that side so when the horse is falling, he’s not falling on anything hard. And of course, the rider has to get his leg out of the way, if possible. So it’s a very, very carefully orchestrated – almost dance move, if you will.
I’ve never really thought about how it all got started, or just how disturbing the process. Thank goodness for cowboys like Errol Flynn, recognizing the need for safety measures and being the voice of the Hollywood horses.
I also want to take the time to wish you all a very Happy Independence Day. Enjoy a long weekend with your loved ones, and make the time to thank any current or past military service men/women you know for their sacrifices to help keep our America a land of the free.