Apart from the dog, the horse is easily man’s most loyal companion (sorry, cat lovers). Now, I’ve never owned a horse so I can’t say for sure that it would protect me from muggers or pull me out of a burning building. I will say that if I DID own a horse, I wouldn’t hesitate to trust it with my life. There’s just something inherently noble about this animal. The ancient Chinese held the horse in particularly high regard, sparing it from back-breaking farm work and instead using it for transport and in battle. Besides, horses were bloody expensive so if you could afford one you were of a certain status in life. Nothing much has changed in that sense. And according to the Chinese Zodiac, it’s considered auspicious to be born under the Year of the Horse.
Mankind’s enduring love for the horse has made it a common sight in art, from paintings to sculptures to motion pictures. In the spirit of the festive season, here is a quick little tribute to the equine stars of the silver screen. There are of course way more examples than I can list here, so these are just a few of my favourites. To qualify, the horses must have an emotional connection with the protagonist, must show some kind of skill or quality that makes them special, and must be from movies that I like. With that, Hi-yo Silver! Away!…
Everyone loves an underdog story, especially if it’s true. Seabiscuit was the unlikeliest racehorse in history. He was born undersized and stayed that way his whole life, and was terribly lazy, prone to eating and sleeping for long hours. For some reason, his handlers had him pegged as a racer, even though his early years saw him losing most of his races. That was until Seabiscuit was assigned a new trainer and a new jockey named Red Pollard. Man and beast must’ve seen something in each other. For one, they both knew what it was like to be physically disadvantaged. Pollard was too big to be a jockey AND he was blind in one eye. But that didn’t stop them from winning eight races in a row. Their reign was halted only when Pollard suffered horrific injuries in a fall, but after he recovered they re-teamed for even greater glory. Seabiscuit went on to become a symbol of hope for many during the Great Depression. All this is captured in dramatic, rousing fashion in the Oscar-nominated film by director Gary Ross (“The Hunger Games”), with Tobey Maguire playing Pollard with his trademark sincerity. What I like about this story is that alone, man and horse were unremarkable, but together they made each other great.
There’s not a single weak or poorly-realised character in Pixar’s magnum opus. Every last one has his/her respective appeal, right down to Woody’s trusty horse Bullseye. In his case he’s played as more of an eager puppy than a stoic steed, but that’s precisely why he’s so darn adorable. Aside from his cute wide-eyed design, that is. Although Buzz Lightyear serves the role of the faithful friend, Bullseye is always there in the background, ever ready to help and support Woody. His services come in handy on more than one occasion, like at the climax of the 2nd film where the gang are on an airport runway in a bid to rescue Jessie. Without Bullseye, we wouldn’t have that happy ending. Innocent, affectionate and unwaveringly loyal, he represents that lesser acknowledged quality of horses which is their capacity for unconditional love. And he accomplishes all that without a single line of dialogue. Initially, he was supposed to have been voiced by Martin Short, but co-director John Lasseter correctly figured that Bullseye would be more appealing as a non-speaking character. Good for the audience, not so much for Short’s career.
If Bullseye is about the horse’s love for man, then this film shows the flipside. After he is awarded for his bravery in the Civil War, Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) is assigned to a remote outpost on the frontier. His only companion is a buckskin named Cisco, who proves to be willful and inquisitive… just like his owner. Dunbar has grown weary of his own kind, so he takes to his horse and his new surroundings like a duck to water. His nature-lovin’ ways endear him to a tribe of Lakota Indians, who eventually accept him as one of their own. But going native comes with a heavy price. Dunbar is mistaken for a “dirty, no-good Injun” by his fellow cavalry-men and they open fire. Unfortunately, Cisco is hit. As his horse lays dying, Dunbar embraces him and softly offers words of comfort. He doesn’t even care that the soldiers are running up behind him with rifles drawn. All he can think about is easing the final moments of his beloved friend. Brief as it is, it’s an intensely moving scene that says a lot about our deep bond with this majestic beast.
Steven Spielberg has a reputation for schmaltz, and sometimes it works (“E.T”), sometimes it doesn’t (“A.I.”). It’s hard to begrudge that sentiment though, as I believe it comes from a pure place. He’s done quite a few films that touch on mankind’s relationship with nature, and even when he’s portraying the wild elements in a scary light (“Jaws”, “Jurassic Park”) there’s always the sense that we should respect them. “War Horse” is the lighter, more uplifting side of this. It’s easy to dismiss the film as simply a tale of a boy and his horse who are separated and spend the running time trying to find each other. Apart from his recurring theme of absent father figures, Spielberg plays with other themes here like honour, sacrifice, duty, perseverance and family. With a horse named Joey as the audience surrogate, bringing these themes to life. Although the film ultimately doesn’t connect emotionally the way the director intended, it still has a lot for animal lovers to appreciate. I must say the performance he squeezed out of a generally inexpressive creature like the horse is pretty impressive. We feel the trials and tribulations that Joey endures in his life’s journey, and some of these are conveyed through simple twitches of his eye or a turn of his head. While the film isn’t perfect, Joey himself is the perfect embodiment of the best virtues of the animal.
I love this movie! Director Martin Campbell took a generationally-irrelevant hero from an unfashionable genre (Westerns) and turned it into one the best superhero origin stories ever. Yes, I consider Zorro a superhero. He’s basically Mexican Batman minus the anger management issues. And like Batman, he has a cool ride that comes in black. Sure, Tornado hasn’t got the tricked-out weapons and thingmajigs. But what he lacks in firepower he more than makes up for in sheer awesomeness. He’s feisty, he’s a smartass, he suffers no fools, and in the beginning he even resists Zorro’s attempts to master him. More than all that, Tornado and Zorro (Antonio Banderas on top form) make a brilliant comedy duo. Some of the film’s funniest gags come from the interplay between man and horse. I don’t recall us getting any laughs out of the Batmobile. Plus, the movie also featured some of the best horseback stunts ever committed to celluloid. I dare say, Tornado is my favourite movie horse.
Electroshadow would like to wish all readers a very HAPPY CHINESE NEW YEAR! May the Year of the Horse see great success and joy galloping into your life!