Horses – and mules – in World War 1

Have you seen War Horse? Very moving. For more facts about horses – and mules – in the First World War  “The Equine Army” episode in the BBC series “World War 1 at Home” is great.

Just how many horses and mules were involved? The answer might amaze you: nearly a million by the end of the war.

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In fact, the army had gone a long way towards mechanization by the outbreak of the war – it was a matter of the sheer scale of the supplies and light artillery which needed to be hauled about Europe that led to the use of so many horses. There were some 25,000 horses in the army to begin with in 1914 but by the end of the first year of the war there were half a million. How did the army manage this? Because there simply weren’t enough horses, even on farms, in Britain, they started importing wild mustangs from the USA and then mules. At one point, some one thousand horses and mules a week. They then had to tame them very quickly – generally using the old, Western methods of “breaking in” by roping and riding the horse to point of exhaustion. That wasn’t what the trainers wanted to do – it was a matter of the urgency of war.

Mules, according to “The Equine Army” programme, were a bit of a puzzle to the army at first. Treating them as horses didn’t work – mules of course are very independently minded. Some say stubborn. And there are some great clips that illustrate this: there’s one of a number of soldiers in a tug of war (and not winning) with one mule. And another of some soldiers trying to shoe a mule: the mule is tied up, it’s boxed in by wooden bars, its leg is tied to a post by a rope – and still it’s kicking out wildly while the farrier approaches with the hot shoe. Unlike a horse, a mule, as you can clearly see in this clip, can kick in all directions, not just backwards. Fortunately, the army eventually got used to mules, finding them more robust in the wartime environment of mud, cold, mud, bad weather, mud and heavy loads. Both horses and mules certainly played a big part in winning the war, but at a great cost.

War Horse, the movie, book or play, had some heart breaking moments but it does have [spoiler alert] a happy ending. Not so for the 484,000 horses and mules which died or were killed. And not so for the 900,000 or so which were unable to return to Britain.

Try catch up TV or hope for a DVD release to see World War 1 at Home: The Equine Army.

To read about your favourite film or TV horse, check out Lights! Camera! Gallop! The Story of the Horse in Film.

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Run for Glory – stunning film about a stunning racehorse

If you like horses, racing or classical music – or all three – do check out Run for Glory – Ode to a horse.

It’s a fictional account of a race horse from foaling to a tremendous win.  Director Ahmed Jamalat was inspired by fabulous Derby winner (1994) Erhaab. Erhaab’s win is said by the experts to have been a particularly exhilarating win. I missed that one – are there any readers out there who saw it and can confirm this (or otherwise)?

The film shows a mix of ups and downs in the life of the horse and his owners. I think the film’s particular success comes through his use of music to enhance the audience’s emotions. It’s set to two movements of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 ‘Choral’ from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (conducted by Herbert von Karajan).

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Publicity pictures copyright Melville Arts

Be warned though. The film runs for only 35 minutes and it’s certainly not a Disney style film. And at £15 (at the time of writing) the DVD is not cheap. If it’s your sort of film it’s definitely worth it though. If in doubt, as ever you can check out the trailer on YouTube. Better still, the film has its own website at:  http://lifeofahorse.com/

(for more horses in more films, check out Lights! Camera! Gallop! The Story of the Horse in Film (Kindle or paperback)

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The Lone Ranger – ten exciting horse stunts explained

Spoiler Alert: this may contain a few spoilers so… you might want to watch the film first.

The Lone Ranger film has now reached TV (at least here in the UK) so I’m re-issuing this . (And the DVD is out). This film has some tremendous horse stunts – some of which were filmed for real (a refreshing break from the  CGI). Yet the American Humane Association has given it the all-clear, issuing its famous “No animals were harmed” in the making of this film. So how did they do it?

The American Humane Association often posts film reviews which give some of the answers to this question. (They’ve got a great website). So this is what I found out:

For a start, as a matter of course, the horses used included specially trained “falling horses” and “lay down horses” that fell on cue and when they did that, their landing area was specially prepared to be soft.

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Here’s how ten of the best horse stunts were filmed:

  1. In the scene where the Lone Ranger’s horse, Silver, picks up a bottle with his mouth and appears to drink beer out of it, horse trainers placed a rubber beer bottle into the horse’s mouth and then pulled gently on his rein to make it look as if he’s drinking it.
  2. The dead horse lying on top of a Texas Ranger was fake.
  3. In the scene where the Indians ride round the barn, shooting their guns in the air, the area was cordoned off by production with fencing. Only quarter load blanks were used (these are very light). After the action, wranglers came in to calm the horses down.
  4. Where Silver jumps from high up out of a burning barn and runs off in the distance, production achieved this image by capturing the horse jumping from a small height with different camera angles. The film crew used wands, each of which was on fire, at seven points to make it looks as if the fire was surrounding the barn. They placed a smoke pot in front of a strong wind machine. The horse actually jumped from a small platform onto mats and soft footing.
  5. OK, this one did use a tiny bit of CGI: In the scene where Silver licks off the scorpions from Tonto and Lone Ranger’s faces, two fake heads were placed in the sand, and covered with treats. The horse bent down to eat the treats from the fake heads – the scorpions were added into the film later by CGI.
  6. In the same scene, the Lone Ranger and Tonto are buried up to their necks and Silver pulls Tonto out of the ground by having him bite onto the reins while Silver backs up, pulling him out. This scene was accomplished by having the two actors buried in a special box with their heads sticking out. Trainers had the horse bend his head down, whereupon the actor bites onto the rein. The horse then backed up, so it looks like he’s pulling the actor out of the ground.
  7. In a scene where a stable explodes and the horses escape from the explosion, trainers built fence posts outside the corral to keep them in place as they run from the stable. The crew placed mortars under the ground which set off small explosions of dust – but the mortars were never near the horses. The explosions in fact took place after the horses were cleared from the set.
  8. In the scene where the Lone Ranger rides Silver across the rooftops, the crew had constructed a set made to look like the flat roofs of town buildings. There was a ramp for the horse at each end. A stuntman rode the horse from point A to point B, jumping over small barriers along the way.
  9. In one of the most exciting scenes, where the Lone Ranger rides his horse on the train jumping from car to car, the production crew had built a set that looked like the top of a train. The trainer rode the horse up a ramp to the set, and rode on the set, jumping on a blue screen placed between the two carriages. The horse was never actually galloping on a moving train.
  10. In the scene where the man pushes the woman off the train and she lands on the horse facing the Lone Ranger, riding face to face, the production team filmed the actors facing each other on the horse riding at a relatively slow pace, then the film was speeded up.

London Film Festival and behind the scenes film snippets – and camels.

London’s 57 film festival draws to a close (20th October) after showcasing and premiering a huge variety of films: 235 feature films and 134 short films from 57 different countries – over just 12 days. Wow!

I’ve still got the day job so with 21 London venues I was only ever going to be able to catch a fraction of them. Ten films in fact. Choosing what to see is not easy because there are generally few independent reviews around; many of the films are being shown there for the first time. Still, I’ve been doing this for a number of years and my choosing process starts mostly with picking the ones not to watch – those films chosen for the opening and closing gala nights are generally very expensive, almost impossible to get tickets for – and likely to come out on general release in the UK anyway. Then I focus in on thrillers and on films with really new concepts. Some years it’s essentially a bit of a lucky dip.

And of course I keep an eye out for films with horses in them. Back in 2007 I struck very lucky on this with Horse Thieves. Two horse-thieving brothers living in Eastern Europe in 1856 get caught up with two other brothers who are Cossacks. There is thievery, murder, revenge – and a lot of horse action.

Didn’t find many horses in my selection this year but there was one amazing film with camels in it: Tracks. Tracks is set in the Australian outback and tells the true story of Robyn Davidson’s solo trek: an unbelievable 2,700 kilometres on foot with four camels and a black dog in 1977. The landscape is stunningly beautiful and the camels are star actors. Tracks stars Mia Wasikowska and for much of the film she is the only human on screen. She’s fantastic, going through the emotions of loneliness, fear, nostalgia and determination, often while facing the camera and controlling the four camels.

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Tracks directed by John Curran, starring Mia Wasikowska (and 4 camels)

One of the great things about the London Film Festival is that you often get the director, the producer or one or two of the stars for a Q and A session afterwards. In this case, director John Curran talked a lot about how it was to direct the four camels. He said the lead camel was great – he growls a lot, in a deep-throated but sort of benign, almost warbling, way and the key thing was that he seemed to know when he was being filmed. John said he would do the growling as soon as the camera was on him, never needing a re-take of a scene.  The black dog, on the other hand, easily got restless and in fact had to be played by several dogs in turn.

There’s a part in the film where the baby camel gets sore feet from the sheer heat of the sand. Apparently, this happened unexpectedly for real during the filming. Throughout filming, John Curran said, the camera team mostly kept a long way off, using zoom lenses. Mia simply fashioned some clothes into shoes, wrapped them around the baby camel’s feet and off they all went again.

If you get the chance – and even if camels aren’t really your thing, I definitely recommend you grab the chance to see Tracks when it reaches your cinema.

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Beer, film, and historical thriller – out now

Ben Wheatley’s new film “A Field in England” is set in seventeenth England. It’s not just a thriller – the Hollywood reporter says it’s “A strikingly original historical thriller spiced with occult mysticism and mind-warping hallucinations”

The seventeenth century was a scary time all round. Many people genuinely believed in witchcraft, the supernatural and a very real presence of the devil. At least this gave them an explanation for wars, freak weather, crop failures and cattle deaths. And others used accusations of witchcraft and devils to settle old scores. You needed have to be a woman to be accused of witchcraft either (though it did help).

The seventeenth century was also the time of the on-off English Civil War, which drove families and neighbours to kill and betray each other. Throw hallucinogens (such as mushroom dust) into this mix – as Ben Wheatley’s “A Field in England” does – and you have the perfect ingredients for a very powerful historical thriller.

“A Field in England” is being released in different formats simultaneously – DVD, TV (Film4) and cinema. Wikipedia says there’s even a specially brewed (Weltons) slow-pour beer to go with it – tagline “Open Up and Let the Devil In.”  Sounds like a really good night in (or out) to me….

Think you might become hooked on the seventeenth century? “Because it is Written” is my short story set in seventeenth century England about witchcraft and a blacksmith’s on a mission for revenge. 

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Ray Harryhausen: creator of magical, animated horses

Sad news that Ray Harryhausen, visual effects master and creator of fabled animated horses Pegasus and Eohippus has passed away aged 92. These horses were in creaky old films admittedly – Clash of the Titans (1981) and the even older and creakier  Valley of Gwangi (1969) (in the fortunately very genre of cowboys vs dinosaurs – but the prehistoric horse Eohippus stole the show). They were however magical (especially but not only in wine-fuelled all-nighter showings somewhere like the old Electric cinema, in London’s Notting Hill, sometime, let’s say, Back in the Day. Heyho)

Much of this blog is based on Chapter 8 of Lights! Camera! Gallop! The Story of the Horse in Film.

Ray Harryhausen worked extensively with stop-motion animation. He was called, with justification, ‘the world’s greatest stop-motion animator’. During a thirty-year career, he did much of the writing, directing, lighting, modelling and animating in his films single-handedly, creating some of the most remarkable moments in stop-motion animation. Much of his work focused on mythical beings or incredible monsters, and two of his greatest creations were horses: Pegasus and Eohippus.

Harryhausen used an advanced form of stop-motion animation (think Chicken Run or Wallace and Gromit to know what stop-motion looks like) which he himself had developed, because he wanted to integrate his model creatures into real settings rather than having to keep on building tiny and elaborate sets (his films were never given anything near a huge budget). When the whole film was later developed and projected on-screen, the horse or monster would appear to be its full intended size yet moving about inside real-life settings and interacting with human actors.

Anyhow, Harryhausen used stop-motion to bring the legendary flying horse Pegasus to the screen in his 1981 film Clash of the Titans, starring Laurence Olivier. Based on Greek mythology, this is a film about how the gods manipulate the lives of mortals, focusing on the courage of one mortal, Perseus, in the face of such manipulation. It has quite a complex plot in which, essentially, one goddess supports Calibos, a deformed outcast cursed by Zeus for hunting to death his winged horses, while other immortals help the film’s hero, Perseus.

In the film, Perseus finds Pegasus, the one remaining flying horse, when the latter comes by night to drink at the Wells of the Moon. In a magical sequence, we first see Pegasus flying through the night sky to land on the ground bathed in moonlight. Perseus lassoes Pegasus, who resists vigorously, but Perseus leaps on to his back; his riding skills have been hinted at earlier in the film, in a scene where he appears as a young boy cantering along a beach on a horse – with neither reins nor saddle. Pegasus at first reacts to Perseus riding him by bucking and rearing in the sky, like some wild rodeo horse. Eventually, though, he is tamed by Perseus giving him water to drink. Perseus flies off on Pegasus into the night – a beautiful scene, shot in silhouette.

Later in the film, the evil Calibos captures Pegasus at the Wells of the Moon by throwing a large net over him. That scene ends horribly, as Calibos’s henchmen beat at Pegasus through the net with huge clubs. The audience is left to presume that he dies an agonising death. But at the film’s climax, just as a giant sea monster is about to grab the heroine and sacrifice her, Pegasus flies in to help Perseus save her. Then, job done, Pegasus poses on a rock in the sea, rears up as if to say farewell, then flies off, up into the sky.

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Throughout the film, Harryhausen uses three main types of shot in the scenes with Pegasus. Close shots tend to focus on his huge white feathered wings and flowing white mane. Close-ups of his head are clearly those of a real white horse. More distant shots showing the whole of Pegasus, especially when he is flying, use a stop-motion model of the horse. Throughout the film, Pegasus flies and canters gracefully with only a hint of jerkiness. In the context of such a powerful and mythical storyline, that slight element of unreality in Pegasus’s gait caused by the stop-motion animation process actually helped to enhance the horse’s magical status, giving him a kind of dreamlike quality.

Harryhausen’s other important stop-motion horse is the Eohippus in The Valley of Gwangi. The first quarter of this film is remarkable for the presence of the Eohippus, a creature that did actually exist but over fifty million years ago and which is said to be the earliest ancestor of the horse. To judge from the fossil remains, it must have looked like a miniature horse, though it was only about the size of a small dog. It had toes rather than hooves: three toes on the front legs and four on its back legs.

In the film, the Eohippus is kidnapped from the Forbidden Valley, a haven blocked off from civilisation and one where dinosaurs have not died out. The kidnappers’ aim is to sell it to Buffalo Bill’s Circus Show for entertainment. Their plan is to have a normal sized horse carrying a tea-tray-sized platform on its back, with Eohippus trotting about on the platform. This, they reckon, will earn them a fortune in ticket sales. Before this plan can be carried out, though, superstitious local villagers decide to return the Eohippus to the Forbidden Valley, lest it bring them bad luck. The cowboys follow the villagers and find the valley. The rest of the film focuses on their disastrous encounters with the dinosaurs (also brought to life through stop animation).

When we first see the Eohippus in the film, it is in a tiny horse pen on a table top, complete with miniature stable. Harryhausen used cardboard cut-outs of the Eohippus in rehearsals with the actors, so that they would know which way to look, thus making it seem as if they could really see the creature. He filmed these scenes without the Eohippus (with its cardboard cut-out out of shot). He then filmed a stop-motion model of the Eohippus separately and merged the two films together afterwards. The Eohippus is so fascinating – a creature previously seen only as a sketch in an encyclopaedia, if at all, is brought to life on the screen – that it seems far more plausible than the rather plastic-looking dinosaurs that appear later in the movie. The Eohippus model used has short, tan-coloured hair and a sloping back, and moves rather like a small antelope, nervously stopping and starting – as any creature might do if it suddenly found itself on a table top. So the slight jerkiness caused by the stop-motion technique goes unnoticed. The visual impact is further reinforced by sound effects: the Eohippus has a high-pitched and convincing neigh.

Ray Harryhausen – great film-maker, sad loss.

http://tinyurl.com/horseinfilmstory  

Mother’s Day – and horses in film

10 March – Mother’s Day (at least, it is in the UK – think it’s in May in the US AND they get a holiday). So, what to write in blog that’s (so far) mostly about film, horses and writing? Well, how about a film that begins with about a horse and foal?

[warning: some plot spoilers but really this is a film you see for the beauty of the wild horses in the film rather than the plot]

There’s a 1999 film Running Free, directed by Sergei Bodrov and set mostly in southern Africa before and during World War One, that starts with a horse birth scene.  The film opens with Lucky, a colt, being born on board a ship carrying horses from Germany to work in the mines in Namibia. Lucky will be the lead character in the film and his story is mostly told by voice-over, but the focus is on his mother in the early part of the film. Because of the unpredictability of when horses give birth (much the same range of unpredictability as with humans when there’s no medical intervention), a number of pregnant grey mares were recruited for the scene where he is born, and the film unit simply waited on stand-by at all hours for one of them to foal. The birth finally occurred one night during the third week of filming. That’s a lot of waiting. This documentary bit of filming was then edited into the scripted narrative of the film.

During the filming, Lucky was played by a total of ten horses in all, five of them foals who play young Lucky.  The use of voice-over to tell the story helps the audience to see the horse’s point of view and this at its most graphic when the ship finally docks in Africa. The first men Lucky sees are armed with whips and they are very brutal and frightening as they force the horses to swim to shore.

Later in the film, there’s quite a lot about the mother-foal bond. Both are desolated and frightened when they are separated.  At one point, he is briefly reunited with his mother – but the mine-owner’s evil stallion Caesar, knocks down Lucky’s mother and she dies. Much later, when Lucky has grown up and grown strong, Lucky manages to avenge his mother’s death: he defeats Caesar in a fight. And he wins over the filly, Beauty, Caesar’s daughter, as his mate.

Happy Mother’s Day All.

For more horses in film, see Lights! Camera! Gallop! at: http://tinyurl.com/horseinfilmstory

Publicity tip for writers – avoid my mistake!

This week was a roller-coaster. Now that my book is (self)published in paperback I decided to give press releasing another go – when I had the Kindle / eBook version published my press releases didn’t seem to provoke any press interest. So, I sent off press releases to two local papers. I followed the advice I’d gathered from the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook excellent Self-Publishing conference some months back. I gave the press release a topical “hook.” I linked the current horsemeat scandal to a snippet in my book on the story of the horse in film – as I recount in the book, Roy Rogers’ beautiful horse Trigger ended up in a number of burgers.

 

Well, there was no response at first, then I got  a short email asking for more details. Then nothing. Oh well, I thought and got on with other work. Then, one wet windy day I got a phonecall from the newspaper – a telephone interview and – “we’re sending the photographer round”. That’s now. 45 minutes to get me – and the horse – ready. The horse was covered in mud and both of us were having a bad hair day. Oh, and what to wear? Cue some frantic scrabbling around.

So my point is, once you send off a press release, be prepared for the press to react – just in case they do.

For any of you whose publicity photo might include a horse – another tip would be: test said horse with flash photography first! My horse Freddie reacted badly to the flash – she broke her headcollar and was off.   Anyway, here’s the picture the paper finally got:

Picture courtesy of Premier Newspapers

 

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http://www.lesleylodge.co.uk Lights! Camera! Gallop” The Story of the Horse in Film from only £1.53 at:

http://tinyurl.com/horseinfilmstory 

 

War Horse – and War Paint

The fabulous film War Horse has been showing on Sky TV in the UK this week.  But did you know that the horses playing the main equine characters had a specialist make-up team of their own?

Their were coats dyed and markings added to ensure continuity between them. And for the scene where Joey, the war horse of the title, is born, a ‘non-toxic slime’ make-up was devised and smeared on to the foal playing the part. And for the really dramatic scene where Joey has fled through World War One’s muddy trenches (see picture) and then lies bleeding, tangled in barbed wire, special non-toxic make-up was used for the blood, mud and cuts on his skin.

For more on horse make-up in film, see Lights! Camera! Gallop! The Story of the Horse in Film