Galloping into the limelight: Equines on stage and screen

Errol Flynn, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
Errol Flynn, The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)

Horses have played a part in some of the great moments of stage and screen.  Professor Charles Caramello charts their journey from travelling equestrian circuses to a multitude of memorable starring roles on the big screen, in a companion piece to his earlier exploration of horses in art.

Horses, like humans, appear not only in painting and sculpture, but also on stage and screen.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

For over two centuries, the horse played the featured role in widely produced and culturally significant forms of live popular entertainment, particularly the equestrian circus and its variant, the Wild West show.

As William C. Steinkraus reminds us: “From the late 1700s until World War I, performing in an equestrian circus was an ambition cherished by almost every highly skilled écuyer, amateur, or professional.”

Often adding to the spectacle and panache of grand opera, horses figure in the “Triumphal March” scene from Verdi’s Aida, first staged with live animals in 1871, and in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (1910), a “hoss opera” in the most literal sense.

The quintessential equine moment in the operatic canon, the self-immolation of the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, signals the end of Valhalla and brings Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and Der Ring des Nibelungen both to a close. (The Australian soprano and horsewoman, Marjorie Lawrence, rode rather than led her horse into the flames at the Met in 1935, thus realizing Wagner’s original vision and ensuring her spot in the history of Wagnerian dramaturgy.)

La Fanciulla del West.  The Metropolitan Opera, 1961
La Fanciulla del West. The Metropolitan Opera, 1961

Less toney equine stage spectacles, such as Cavalia and Theatre Equestre Zingaro, enjoy current vogue, while, in a different aesthetic register, abstractions or puppets of horses play critical roles in contemporary dramas such as Equus and War Horse.

When one thinks of the horse as performer or actor, however, one instinctively thinks not of the stage, but of the dressage manège. The public generally appreciates dressage, the foundational equestrian discipline, as a performing art of the highest aesthetic and athletic order, often styling it “dancing with horses”.

It is important to distinguish the ontologies and objectives of dressage from those, for example, of ballet — dressage is training that the performance confirms, while ballet is performance that training has enabled — but the distinction is to some degree an academic one, and nearly all spectators who are not aficionados view the performance of dressage movements and tests as performance, as an end in itself, and not as the validation of a prior process.

However one perceives dressage, the elegant and muscular airs of the haute école, for which the Spanish Riding School has set the standard for execution and public performance since the 16th century, easily rival the leaps of ballet in beauty and strength, and they almost look easier — or at least more defiant of the laws of gravity — by comparison.

Cannaletto, Vienna Spanish Riding School (1773)
Cannaletto, Vienna Spanish Riding School (1773)

Excepting the circus and the manège, horses have been far more central to cinema than to performing arts. One reason is inherent in the medium. Moving pictures not only move, they are fundamentally about movement, the insight that has driven Western and frontier movies from Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) to Michael Mann’s resolutely kinetic Last of the Mohicans (1992).

Galloping horses generate a powerful visual energy, and the movies provide the perfect medium for recording and displaying it, as Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic study, The Horse in Motion, anticipated in 1878. A second reason reflects the culture in which the medium developed most fully.

Western American frontier experience, entirely dependent on the horse, is the fundamental mythic American experience, and it became, in the form of the Western, arguably the fundamental American movie genre.

This has generated a near endless number of film roles for the horse as anonymous transporter and warrior and, in the more juvenile variants of the Western genre, as a named partner to the laconic (and often melodic) matinee idol: Tom Mix and Tony, Hopalong Cassidy and Topper, Gene Autry and Champion, Roy Rogers and Trigger, or the Lone Ranger and Silver (sidekicks also have equine partners: Dale Evans and Buttercup, Tonto and Scout).

Eadweard J. Muybridge's The Horse in Motion (1878)
Eadweard J. Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion (1878)

The early history of the moving picture industry, in addition to medium and culture, also helped to make the horse a central fixture.

Though first developed in New York, the movies decamped to Hollywood when southern California was still “the West,” and the industry grew cheek by jowl with ranching and other equine enterprises. Many early “stars” came off the range, from Wyatt Earp, who, in his maturity, parlayed his fame as a lawman into a movie career, to Tom Mix, an Easterner turned Oklahoma cowboy, who saw relatively early in life where the future lay: Mix appeared in nearly 300 movies and, with William S. Hart, defined the cowboy genre.

In addition, Southern California had long been horse country in more ways than ranching, and then as now embraced polo, thoroughbred racing, and equestrian sports in general.

Tom Mix and Tony
Tom Mix and Tony

Horses became an accoutrement of the Hollywood “lifestyle”, enabling skilled riders like Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan to adapt to Western and military equitation for their roles and the less skilled to enjoy the status that owning or riding horses conferred.

Movie moguls and racehorses made a natural love match, for example, one captured and parodied in the grisly bedroom scene featuring movie producer and severed horse head that still shocks viewers of The Godfather (1972).

The cavalry film represents a rich subgenre that, in its American variant, overlaps the Western. This fictional subgenre became prominent entre deux guerres, when modern weaponry and transport were making actual cavalry an anachronism. Salient examples, fluttering between visions of valor and nostalgia for empire, include The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), and Gunga Din (1939), in the British imaginary; They Died with Their Boots On (1941), in the American.

John Wayne and John Ford
John Wayne and John Ford

The US found its post-World War II anomie reflected in the shaded tonalities of the John Ford-John Wayne cavalry trilogy Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950); and the 1960s, roiled by the Vietnam War, found correlatives for its violent nihilism in Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969), and for its corrosive cynicism in Richard Lester’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), where the British and American cavalries figure as dysfunctional enterprises led by naïfs, churls, and buffoons.

The 1970s responded with the subtle complexity of Patton (1970), William Friedken’s study of the self-defeating leadership of its titular general officer, “an old horse soldier” of blunt courage and tactical brilliance at odds not with the deployment of mechanized cavalry, but with the modern military’s employment of public relations.

The Long Riders (1980)
The Long Riders (1980)

Then there was Apocalypse Now (1979), Francis Ford Coppola’s tale of a military grandiosity (and lunacy) epitomized in Robert Duvall’s star turn as air cavalry officer Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, blasting Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkyries” from his airship’s loudspeakers.

This was followed by The Long Riders (1980), Walter Hill’s poetic tribute to the deep if bloody culture of border states and to the James and Younger brothers, Confederate guerrillas who, after the Civil War, turned outlaw, rode long and hard, and never stopped whistling Dixie.


 This article is excerpted from a book-in-progress: Riding Late: Essays on Horsemanship, Cavalry, and the Great War.



The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)



Charles Caramello

Charles Caramello is Professor of English at the University of Maryland and John H. Daniels Fellow at the National Sporting Library and Museum in Middleburg, Virginia.

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