They shoot horses, don’t they?: War Horse and the foals on film

As War Horse makes it terrestrial TV debut, Andrew Collins takes a look at the long relationship between horses and cinema

It’s something of a relief that no horses actually appear in Sydney Pollack’s Depression-era drama They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, as you might not fancy their chances much. Nevertheless, Hollywood has been “shooting” horses, in the cinematic sense, for as long as cameras have rolled. War Horse (on BBC1 tonight at 8.00pm) is just the latest example of a stirring widescreen adventure with plenty of horsepower.


A number of early British silents featured horse racing (including The Sport of Kings in 1921), and American westerns were all about men on horseback riding into town, a bow-legged tradition from Tom Mix to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. It is no surprise that we can name cowboy Roy Rogers’s horse. Or the Lone Ranger’s. (A point for each.) Or that westerns are known as “horse operas” or even “oaters”. Where would cinema be without these noble odd-toed ungulates?

In the National Theatre’s world-beating account of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel War Horse, the equine protagonist Joey is brought to life by the Handspring Puppet Company (above). By the time he arrived on the screen, under Steven Spielberg’s direction, he was portrayed by a real horse, which made his terrifying experiences of the First World War in Flanders all the more visceral. (Morpurgo has calculated that ten million horses died in the war.) 

War Horse meant two months of intensive horse training for some of its cast – “riding boot camp” being a rite of passage for thesps. Fourteen different horses played Joey, from foal to adult, and in one scene as many as 280 animals were used, often working in thick mud. The American Humane Association awarded the film an “outstanding” rating for its welfare, although animal lovers will be relieved to learn that an animatronic Joey was used for some of the barbed-wire bits.

CGI is often used to substitute real animals these days, although there is little to beat close-ups and long shots of an actual horse galloping across the screen, such as in the recent true-life racehorse sagas Seabiscuit and Secretariat.

Although screenwriting manuals insist that a cat or dog in peril cannot die (one is memorably titled Save the Cat!), there are no such rules about horses, which have to fend for themselves. They are working animals after all, and their sheer size and bearing make them far more mortal on screen. Behind the camera, of course, countless horses have died for the cause of entertainment over the years, with tripwires a thoroughly regrettable legacy of early western filmmaking. (As recently as 2012, the Michael Mann-directed series Luck for HBO had to shut down production after two horses needed to be put down after race scenes.)

The superhuman stature of a horse, coupled with a certain inscrutability, offers plenty of psychological possibilities in dramas like The Horse Whisperer (above), in which Robert Redford confirms his leathery manliness and innate sensitivity by understanding animals in the Montana mountains. The “breaking” of wild horses lies at the heart of The Black Stallion (one is tamed by a boy on a desert island) and The Misfits (mustangs are rounded up by Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift). The abiding message is clear: the horse is no pushover.

Ever since National Velvet in 1944, children’s films – often based on novels – have been fuelled by every young girl’s apparent ambition to have a pony or horse. Anna Sewell’s 1877 book Black Beauty has been adapted for successive generations from the 1910s onwards. And of course The Adventures of… was an ITV series in the 70s, an era in which we also thrilled to Follyfoot, set in a horses’ rest home, and The White Horses, a dubbed Yugoslavian import about a stud farm.

In the 1994 Black Beauty, Alan Cumming narrates the story as the eponymous colt, a device used in the original book. But outside of 60s American TV’s verbose palomino Mister Ed, horses are creatures of few words, even when they are anthropomorphised in the likes of The Aristocats, Sleeping Beauty and Tangled. They tend to convey their personalities by snorting, frowning and flouncing.


And the movie horse has plenty to snort about. Arguably the most iconic appearance in cinema by the proud, athletic, hard-working, inscrutable species is that of Khartoum, the elegant black stud owned by Hollywood producer Jack Woltz in The Godfather. At mention of the film, you’ ll have remembered his awful fate. The Mafia do more than shoot horses, don’t they?

War Horse is on BBC1 tonight (16th November) at 8.00pm