Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Hollywood Horse Cruelty: Then and Now

Hi Yo Silver, Awa....wait, is his nose practically tied down to his chest?
People seem to be shocked an appalled by the deaths of three horses during 10 months of filming on the set of HBO's horse racing television show, "Luck." I'm going to get back to that... but first, let's look at some historic Hollywood horse cruelty.

First, watch this movie clip. It's the chariot race from the original Ben Hur, a silent movie made in 1925 (though the sound track included here was played at theaters on record players). This scene influenced pretty much every racing duel shot since then, including the pod racer scene in Star Wars: Phantom Menace. Feel free to skip forward to 2:55, where the horse close-ups start. If you're squeamish...well, grab your blankie, because this is rough:

Guess what? That was all real. Yes, the whipping of the horses, the rearing, the crashes, the carnage-- all real. The horses weren't safely trained to do any of that, and none of it was a stunt. See, the producer wanted to see some crazy action, so he offered a cash bonus to whoever won the chariot race, counting on editing to later portray the main character as the winner no matter what happened. Several horses died during the race. More died in the second, color version of the movie too.

And that was hardly the only incident of extreme horse cruelty in films. You know all of those cowboy flicks involving chases, shootouts and Indian battles? Well, most of the horror in those movies was real too. Producers used steel cables as trip wires to get horses to fall down as if shot. Other cruelties included harsh reining and spurring, sharp turns and sudden yanking-- and that stuff has continued into the present day!

"The Charge of the Light Brigade"

Here is a brief and very incomplete list some of the most egregious examples of cruelty to equines in movies:

1980: "Heavens Gate"  Horse blown up with explosives under his saddle, many more injured during battle scenes, horse tripping with steel cables was common, a real cock fight takes place, and the producers and horse wrangler were sued by one horse's owner for, "the severe physical and behavioral trauma and disfigurement" of her Arabian horse used in the film. 

1988: "Rambo III" Horse tripping with wire cables.

1999: "The 13th Warrior" Horse tripping with wire cables.

2005: "Manderlay" Donkey bled to death.

2011: "Water for Elephants" and "Zookeeper"  Elephants beaten during the training process: video here. (Okay, okay, these aren't equines. Close enough!)

"Now wait a minute," you say. "These have got to be flukes. There's, like, laws and stuff against shit like this!"

Well....sort of. Everyone is supposed to obey the laws against animal neglect and cruelty, including movie producers. News flash: not everyone obeys the law, the authorities can rarely be bothered to prosecute animal cruelty cases, and the richer you are, the more likely you can get away with crap. Oh, and killing an animal isn't against the law as long as it belongs to you, and as long as you aren't exactly torturing it to death.

"Okay, but wait-- what about that thing at the end of movies that says, 'No animals were harmed," etc?"

That little statement is a trademarked certificated given to films by the American Humane Association.

"Great, so someone is watching out for animals in movies!"

Not exactly. Guess who hires AHA? The movie producers. So the people who are being investigated and watched are the ones who hired the investigators and watchers. Hmmm....conflict of interest much? Long, long ago, the American government ruled that movie-makers couldn't be required to submit to humane oversight by AHA or any other organization, because that would amount to censorship. So submitting to AHA is also entirely voluntary. And apparently, they're also pushovers. If you check out their list of recent films and tv shows, they don't rate a single one negatively. That includes "Luck," where three horses died on set: their rating for "Luck" is "Monitored: Special Circumstances." They gave the same rating to "Zookeeper," even though the elephant (which also appeared in "Water for Elephants") was beaten during the training process, and a giraffe died immediately after his scenes had been shot, possibly, according to some, after having been confined in a tiny stall for months (but, says AHA, those things didn't actually happen while the movie was being filmed, so they don't count). AHA will also rate a film "Believed Acceptable" even if they have never been on the set of the movie, as long as they can review the script and movie and ask questions about the use of animals on the set.

"So what about 'Luck?'"

First, let's re-cap. There's been a lot of controversy over the HBO drama "Luck," because of the deaths of three horses during 10 months of filming. I've waited to blog on this subject, because I had hoped to unearth more details about the day-to-day reality for these horses. Unfortunately, few details are available. Dr. Scott Palmer, a vet with some pretty big credentials, wrote that he believed everything possible had been done to safeguard the horses. He makes a pretty convincing argument, though he was not involved with "Luck" in any way, and didn't get to see the horses or events in question. Personally, I'm just not sure that three horses in ten months can be explained away by bad luck... and considering the track record of Hollywood, it's hard to give any film the benefit of the doubt.

Even if the producers of "Luck" didn't do anything wrong, I think the entire entertainment biz needs to step up and clean up its act.

"So what can we do to help?"

Write your representatives and encourage them to support tougher laws on animal cruelty. Write your favorite movie studio, actors and companies and encourage them to use animals humanely, or to use CGI or robot animals instead. Avoid animal films made in places like China, where there are no animal cruelty laws. Finally, if you have good information that a movie or tv show has harmed animals, boycott it.

1 comment:

  1. Ohhh, that makes me so mad. Especially the Water for elephants story. The Ben-Hur clip was understandable, as cinematic animal rights were really non-existent then. But I thought that crap doesn't happen anymore.