HN film critic Amanda Ronan continues trudging through her comprehensive list of Every Horse Movie Ever Made. At #20, it’s Miracle of the White Stallions.
Based on the autobiographical novel “The Dancing White Horses of Vienna” by Alois Podhajsky, Miracle of the White Stallions tells us the true story of the Lipizzaner stallions of the Spanish Riding School during WWII. Walt Disney Productions produced the movie in 1963, starring Robert Taylor, Lilli Palmer, and Curt Jurgens. It was filmed at the actual Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria.
The movie begins in documentary style, with a narrator detailing a brief history of the Spanish Riding School, the Lipizzaner breed, and Austrian involvement in the War. We then are introduced to our lead character, Colonel Alois Podhajsky who is desperately fighting to evacuate his beloved horses before the war strikes Vienna.
I must admit that I missed most of the dialogue because the background was so INCREDIBLY beautiful. We were given an excruciatingly quick tour through the main training arena, the
stables, and what looks to be an office literally covered from floor to ceiling with paintings of horses.
After a very serious discussion between the Colonel and his wife, we are whisked away to the dining hall of the riders, where they are quite literally singing for their supper. In America we
generally say, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” In Germany it’s “A wienerschnitzel for all that ails you.”
The merriment dies quickly as the men are informed that they will be forced to leave the School and head back to active service at the war front. Dinner is then interrupted by the sudden
sound of sirens, warning of an imminent air raid.
The Colonel, with his riders headed back to war, his mares and foals sent off to the unknown in Czechoslovakia, and his stallions threatened by air raid, appeals once more to the Nazi
powers to evacuate what remains of the Spanish Riding School. The request to remove the horses is denied by a very glum General Striker. However, the “Area Defense Commander” General Tellheim informally gives permission to evacuate priceless “treasures” from the school.
Conveniently, these treasures must be hauled out on wagons pulled by white stallions.
The Lipizzaner’s begin their exodus from Vienna to St. Martin by train…
…on which they practice their piaffe?
I am not joking. This horse held a piaffe for almost 30 seconds of film, presumably unsaddled, without a handler, while on a train that was moving. And that was the most interesting part of their fleeing Vienna. I was expecting a journey fraught with heartache and sacrifice, but actually they made the journey to St. Martin with very little difficulty.
The Colonel finds a very humble home to reside and train the horses while they wait out the war.
A country hovel really.
In the last two weeks of the war, General Tellheim brings news to the Colonel. To save the school he must demilitarize it. It is the only chance the horses will have of surviving when the Nazis are conquered, which is inevitable. You don’t watch many movies with “good” Nazis. It was very strange for me to see these older, military men who had dedicated their life to a cause and then…
Wait! They are NAZIS! What am I talking about?
Anyway, the war ends and German officials are stripped of their country by the Allies. The horses face another more immediate threat though, namely a creepy refugee and his mob, who
intend to ride the horses out of Eastern Europe to flee the Allied Russians.
The mob is quickly defeated as bombs of the “conquerors” are heard in the distance. Capture is inevitable and the Colonel fears for the lives of his animals.
His wife says, “You must understand. There are people in this world to whom a horse is just a horse. White, black or piebald. Not a thing of beauty of culture. Just a horse! A means of
transportation or perhaps something to fill their stomachs.” She follows up with a valiant plea for him to keep fighting, for the horses and for hope. Smart woman. The Colonel immediately denounces Nazism, rids himself of his military rank and uniform, trashes all their weapons, and begins preparing for the arrival of the Americans.
Once the U.S. Army arrives, we are quickly introduced to a young Major Hoffman, who apparently hails “from that part of Texas where they still know how to ride a horse.” With his
help, the Colonel petitions the American commander to protect the 70 Lipizzaner stallions residing in St. Martin along with the mare and foals still in Czechoslovakia. The commander can offer no such help.
But Major Hoffman formulates a plan. Four-Star General Patton, rider in the 1912 Olympics and avid horseman, is coming to St. Martin in a couple of days. A performance for General Patton just may convince America to protect the Lipizzaner breed. Training begins early the next morning to the amusement of the American soldiers.
American Soldier One: “What’s a Spanish riding school doing in Austria?”
American Soldier Two: “We’ve got a Spanish restaurant in Brooklyn.”
American Soldier One: “Mmm hmm. Look at them sashay around.”
At the end of the superb performance, the Colonel makes a final plea to General Patton and the entire U.S. Army to protect the Spanish Riding School and help in finding the Lipizzaner mares trapped across the line of demarcation in Czechoslovakia.
Will General Patton agree?
You’ll just have to watch and see.
This movie, all though extremely slow in some parts with the long, wooden monologues typical of an older film, was fairly good. I am not a war historian, so I can not account for the
authenticity of the events depicted, but I do know that Disney changed small things, such as exchanging the factual brown jackets in one performance for a flashy red.
Regardless, the equestrianism, scenery, and historical props more than made up for those small inconsistencies. The riding was superb, as it was performed by the actual Spanish Riding
School and choreographed by the real Colonel Alois Podhajsky. The last ten minutes alone are worth the watch.
On a personal note, I hope never to have to type the two words Lipizzaner and Czechoslovakia again….
I give it 3 out of 4 Golden Horseshoes.