The National Museum of Animals & Society, established January 2010, is dedicated to enriching the lives of animals and people through exploration of our shared experience. Read more...
National Museum of Animals & Society Blog
Think of an epic film. There’s a good chance your mind wandered to something along the lines of Braveheart or Lord of the Rings. There’s also a good chance you immediately pictured one of the vast battle sequences where our heroes clash magnificently against their foes on horseback. Well, what about the horses? They fall under arrow-fire, get hewn down by sword and axe, and trample each other. There is a lot of authenticity to these scenes, as real epic warfare featured many painful and hideous casualties for soldier and warhorse alike; but to what extent do films try to capture this verisimilitude?
Prior to 1940, there was no regulation in the treatment of animals in film. In such classics as Ben Hur (1925), animals were killed through accidents or negligence on-set, or, more horrifically, intentionally for dramatic purposes. This all changed after the 1939 film Jesse James, where a horse was driven off a cliff to its death, sparking public outrage. The American Humane Association (AHA), a group dedicated to the welfare of animals and children, began to police Hollywood with their Film and Television Unit, famous for their “No Animals Were Harmed” disclaimer.
Still, films as late as the 1990s continued inhumane practices on their animal actors, particularly in epic battle sequences. Where a charge of horses was required, the common practice was to use trip-wires on the unsuspecting animals, which caused them to fall down violently, and sometimes resulted in injuries such as cuts or, in the worst cases, broken legs. This procedure has fallen out of favor largely due to the policing of the AHA, but also because of economic concerns. Quite simply, it costs more to hurt the animals and have to replace them.
Over the last few decades, and due to ever-enhancing technology, there are now many work-arounds that accomplish the realistic drama of warfare without harming the animals involved. There are trainers who specialize in raising stunt horses for use in films. These horses are trained to perform a simple forward fall by turning their heads and buckling their knees, in return for some reward. The work of the animals on-set is heavily monitored by the AHA. While these real animals add life to a scene technology cannot perfectly imitate, the safest methods are implemented by using as few real animals as possible. For the climactic battle in Braveheart (1995), a combination of trained real horses and realistic mechanical stunt doubles were used. In more recent epic films — the Lord of the Rings trilogy being one of the most notable — horses were used for riding, but were almost completely absent from the large-scale battle sequences; instead the director opted to save both effort and money with digitally-inserted horses. They still lend the dramatic weight when the heroes charge into battle, and they still look every inch as majestic. But these horses can come to no harm, and I’d say that’s the most humane film-making method Hollywood has.
See also The Fifth Estate’s Cruelty on Film timeline, a list of notable films by year where animals were either injured or killed during filming.