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Riding into film history

From Silver to Seabiscuit, the horse has had a starring role in Hollywood as a form of transportation, a buddy and a vehicle for redemption.

March 07, 2004|Deanne Stillman | Special to The Times

History has determined that Roman Emperor Caligula was crazy, but one moment suggests otherwise: He made his horse a senator. Of course, in doing so, he prefigured Shakespeare by about 1,000 years, literally turning his kingdom over to a horse. In Gore Vidal's "Caligula" (1979), the emperor is assassinated on the palace steps, and as the blood drains from his body, the trusty steed Incitatus (Latin for "spurred on") gallops across the set, stopping at his master's feet to let out a plaintive neigh.

Only a horse, through the simple utterance of its native sound, could suggest that Caligula had a shred of decency. But in film, it often is a horse's role to show us the best and worst of human behavior. Mute witness to everything from the beauty of uncharted territory to Indian massacres to cruel roundups, the horse is the most truthful of all mirrors even as it is pressed intomythologizing the country that was settled on horseback.

The horse has been part of the American cultural landscape, from portraits of George Washington on his white steed through "Seabiscuit." But it predates Hollywood (and Rome) by thousands of years. Eohippus, or "dawn horse," flourished in North America until the Ice Age; its modern descendant was reintroduced in the 16th century by Cortes with 16 horses.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 11, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Animal protection -- An article in Sunday's Calendar on the use of horses in movies incorrectly identified the agency that monitors the use of animals in movies. It is the American Humane Assn., not the Humane Society.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 14, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Animal protection -- An article on the use of horses in the movies that ran in last Sunday's Calendar incorrectly identified the agency that monitors the use of animals in movies as the Humane Society. It is the American Humane Assn.

Outside of explorers' accounts, not much was written about the horse until it entered American mythology with Paul Revere's famous ride. "The fate of a nation was riding that night / And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight / Kindled the land into flame with its heat," wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

This week, echoes of that ride resonate through "Hidalgo," a movie about a Pony Express rider and his mustang who enter a 3,000-mile endurance race across the Sahara Desert, taking on Arabian purebloods and proving that the scrappy American mixed breed can rumble with the best. Disney bills the movie as "based on the true story of Frank T. Hopkins," although there is some controversy about whether Hopkins actually rode for the Pony Express and if the race he claimed to have run existed.

More important, this is the second movie in three years about a wild horse (the other was "Spirit"), marking the endurance of the greatest American film genre -- the western. Without the western, America would be a cipher, a land that casts no shadow. The West is our garden of eden, transcribed and spun by Hollywood into the western, our national Bible.

Like the country itself, birthed by an animal that carried us over mountains, plowed our fields, fought our wars, and served as food when we were hungry, Hollywood was built on the horse.

In 1894 Thomas Edison made possibly the first filmic intrepretation of a horse story -- 643 frames called "Bucking Bronco." A few years later, the icon of the cowboy and his beloved horse was coined by silent films, beginning with heartthrob William S. Hart and his superstar red and white pinto, Fritz, who got more fan mail than Hart; today both are buried atHart's ranch in Newhall, a Los Angeles County museum.

Many other equine icons (and their human partners) were launched during the '20s and '30s, including the Lone Ranger and Silver, Tonto and Scout, and Hopalong Cassidy and Topper. There was the great Tom Mix and his horse Tony, who for a time were the country's most beloved couple, starring in "My Pal, the King" and "Cupid's Round-Up."

Superstars of the era were Mr. Ed's progenitor, Francis the Talking Mule and Rex the Wonder Horse, which got this rave from Billboard: "This horse is a great deal more intelligent than some human actors we have seen."

Singing cowboy Gene Autry knew this well; his career foundered until he teamed with Champion (there would be several), which could play dead, outrun cars and trucks, kneel in prayer and do the hula. From 1937 to 1942, Autry was the top-ranking western film star -- thanks to his horse.

Hollywood may have buddied up with the horse on-screen, but the filmmaking process was hard on the animals -- and sometimes fatal. When a black mustang was driven over a cliff during the shooting of "Jesse James" in 1939, there finally was a public outcry. The Humane Society, which was created to improve the lot of the horse and the orphan, began monitoring the use of animals in movies, although horses have died in Hollywood stunts as recently as 1980 in "Heaven's Gate."

As moviemaking became more sophisticated, so did westerns. From the '30s to the '60s, hundreds of them were produced, and horses figured in the narratives in many ways. Whether as a form of transportation, a buddy, a vehicle for redemption or a critter that is no longer needed, the horse has starred in many of the greatest moments in American history, cinematic or otherwise, shedding light on this country's perception of itself.

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