Miracle Of The White Stallions

Director: Arthur Hiller
Robert Taylor, Lilli Palmer, Curt Jurgens

If you have been going to this web site for some time now, it's very likely that not only have you concluded that I have an interest in unknown movies, but that the kind of unknown movies that I am interested in for the most part are unknown movies made by independent filmmakers and independent studios. And you would be correct. But that's not to say that I shun anything to do with the major studios in Hollywood. On this web site I occasionally review a movie that came from a major Hollywood studio. And when I am not working on this web site, I spend a lot of time reading accounts about what the major Hollywood studios have been doing. There is one particular major Hollywood studio that has interested me greatly in recent years, and that is the Disney studio. If you look at their activities during the past few years, you'll see they are getting bigger and bigger in power every year. Just look at what they have acquired in recent years. They have gotten the Pixar animation studio, they now have control of the Muppets, they made a deal with George Lucas so that they now own everything that has to do with the Star Wars universe, and they also bought Marvel Entertainment. And when it comes to making feature films with properties such as those, Disney has often found considerable box office success. True, not everything has been great for Disney in the past few years. Remember John Carter, or The Lone Ranger, or Mars Needs Moms? But with multiple streams of revenue from not just the feature film industry, it seems that Disney will just get bigger and bigger in the future.

But it was not always that way. If you go back several decades, namely in the 1970s, you will find that the Disney studio was in trouble. Their box office take had gone down considerably, enough that exploitation studio American International Pictures one year managed to outgross them. Disney movies had become a turn-off; I remember reading a news report about this where a youth stated, "I wouldn't go to one of their movies if you paid me." Without Walt Disney (who died in 1966) to guide them, the company was struggling. But actually, the problems happening to Disney started years earlier when Walt was still running the company - in the 1950s, to be exact. For one thing, the theatrical animation market was drying up, and severe cuts had to be made to the animation unit. But a bigger reason came in 1959, with the release of the live action movie The Shaggy Dog. It was a quickie effort, filmed for under one million dollars in cheap black and white. To everyone's surprise, this goofy and simple-minded slapstick movie turned out to be a huge hit, becoming the second highest grossing movie of the year. After this success, the Disney studio over the next decade slowly started to churn out more goofy movies in a similar vein, movies such as Lt. Robin Crusoe USN, The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones, and The Ugly Dachshund. As it turned out, almost all of these goofy movies were considerable box office successes at the time. And after Walt died, the studio continued for the next decade making more of these kinds of movies. But several years after Walt's death, the public soon started getting tired of these movies, which were becoming more and more familiar. It's no wonder that in the 1970s audiences such as the kid I quoted above eventually stopped going to see most Disney movies.

Although it is tempting to blame Walt Disney for the wrong direction the studio eventually went, he wasn't really at fault. After The Shaggy Dog was released, up to his death he did try to continue to make high quality family movies. There were movies like Darby O'Gill And The Little People, Pollyanna, Greyfriars Bobby, and The Three Lives Of Thomasina. But asMiracle Of The White Stallions it turned out, most of these high quality family movies weren't as profitable as those goofy comedies - if profitable at all. That was the fate that happened to the Disney movie I am reviewing here, Miracle Of The White Stallions. While not an outright flop, its unspectacular gross probably wasn't enough to recoup its cost. What got me interested in watching and reviewing it were reports that it was unlike any other Disney movie of its time, or any other time for that matter. Just take a look at the following plot description. The white stallions of the movie are in fact the famed Lipizzaner stallions from Austria, and the movie is a recreation of a true incident involving the horses, staring in the closing days of World War II. The protector of the horses, one Colonel Alios Podhajsky (Taylor, Quo Vadis), initially has the problem of protecting the horses from being hurt or killed by war violence, and after a long struggle he gets permission from a German general (Jurgens, The Spy Who Loved Me) to move the horses. With the help of his wife Vedena (Palmer, The Boys From Brazil), Alios gets the horses out of harm's way and to safe territory. But in the process, the mares are separated from the stallions, with the Russians having possession of the mares and the Americans having possession of the stallions. Alios soon realizes that the only man that can reunite the horses and prevent the breed from dying out is American General Patton (John Larch, Framed), but not only will Alios have to convince Patton that the horses are a national treasure, he'll have to convince Patton to make a dangerous rescue mission into Russian-held territory.

As you can no doubt see from that plot description, even though it's only a mere one hundred and ninety-four word long in length, Miracle Of The White Stallions sure sounds different from the other family movies Disney was making around this period. (And as you also no doubt noticed, it certainly sounds different than the family movies Disney is making today.) If you are a parent who stumbled across this review while doing pre-viewing research, you may be wondering at this point if the movie is appropriate for your children. I'll answer that question now, though starting with identifying possible inappropriate material like swearing and violence. (Some of you may be chuckling at the thought of inappropriate material in an old Disney movie, but in actual fact, not all movies produced by Walt himself were squeaky clean exercises. Fantasia had nudity, for one thing.) Well, there certainly isn't any foul language, not even words like "hell" or "damn", which managed to find their way into other Disney films. There is some brief beer drinking. And there's no nudity or sex, though there is a reference to a "stud farm" at one point, and some prudish parents may not want to explain to their children what is happening when a mare is nursing a pony. There is some violence here and there - Colonel Podhajsky's assistant Otto (Eddie Albert, Goliath Awaits) get beat up and wounded with a gunshot while defending the horses from thieves, and there is warfare violence ranging from fighter pilots shooting at a train transporting the stallions to safer ground to a battlefield fight between Allied and Nazi forces (though no one gets hurt in the former conflict, and only one is seen getting killed in the latter one.)

So if you allow your child to regularly watch prime time television, it is extremely unlikely that you'll find objectionable content in Miracle Of The White Stallions. All the same, however, I would caution parents making their kids watch the movie - or to watch it with their kids. Both kids and adults will more likely than not find the movie tough to sit through. For one thing, the movie has some confusing moments. The movie seems to assume that its audience already has a good amount of knowledge about the era and the Lipizzan stallions. A narrator gives some brief information before the opening credits and a little bit afterwards, but after that, the audience is on its own. Many details take forever to be made clear, like in the second half of the movie when it's unclear if the war is still going on or not. Some things - like why the mares were separated from the stallions - are never explained at all. Kids will likely be very confused by much of the movie. Adults with some knowledge of the Second World War (or the Lipizzan horses and history for that matter) will be somewhat less bewildered, but even their knowledge won't be able to overcome a bigger problem with the movie. That problem - the biggest in the movie - is that the movie is incredibly boring for kids and adults alike. Though you might think that the horses would be up and center - and who doesn't love horses? - that is simply not the case at all. The focus of the movie is instead on the human characters and their endless conversations with each other, precious little of which is interesting or insightful. What the movie really needed was some action on a regular basis, whether it involved the horses or not. But when I think about it, I don't think that more action sequences would have helped. In the few action scenes that there are in the movie, director Arthur Hiller (Love Story) doesn't manage to light a spark any more than with the dialogue sequences, whether it's because of puny explosions or somehow managing to put a matter of fact feeling to whatever conflict is happening instead of feelings like tension or excitement.

I will give Arthur Hiller this: he does manage to give the movie an authentic feeling scene after scene. The costumes look right, the period detail coming from the vehicles and various props manages to convince, and the backdrop, from the shot-in-Austria countryside to the shot-in-Hollywood interiors, feels right. But at the same time, the look of the movie is kind of flat and crammed in. This may be because almost all of Hiller's previous directorial experience up to this point was with television. A wide and sweeping feel to the movie would have helped considerably. Hiller also seems to have had problems coaxing most of his cast to give colorful performances. Certainly, a lot of the blame for the passionless acting has to go to the script. The character of Alios Podhajsky seems to have only one goal, to save his precious horses. He only seems interested in his wife as a possible tool to use to save the horses. As a result, actors Robert Taylor and Lili Palmer generate absolutely no chemistry in their scenes together, their characters showing no love or affection to each other. It's hard to care about these two characters. In fact, the only character that wins some sympathy is Curt Jurgens' German general character. He shows some support for Alios, and has a couple of moments that reveal some deep hidden humanity. These moments were very interesting, but oddly the movie shortly afterwards has this character disappear and never show up again. Odder still is that the title characters - the horses - as I indicated earlier, don't get that much more screen time. They are off-screen for most of the movie, and they only get two (brief) moments where they get to show off what they have been trained to do. That's right - a movie called Miracle Of The White Stallions where the horses hardly get to do a thing! It's just another thing about the movie that is lacking sense. Or should I say "horse sense".

(Posted April 15, 2018)

UPDATE: "Sandra" sent this in:

"You didn’t mention one fact that I found interesting: Robert Taylor was cast because he and Col. Alios Podhajsky looked a lot alike from a distance. That means that during the scene where the horses perform for the American soldiers, that’s the real Colonel putting the stallion through its paces. 
"The problem with the character is the problem with Robert Taylor in general: the man always appeared to be thoroughly pissed off about something. I don’t know anything about him personally. Maybe he did go through life in a state of simmering rage. It didn’t make him appealing on screen. He never had any chemistry with his leading ladies.
"The only decent performance he ever gave, IMO, was in The Last Hunt, where he played a mentally unstable sadist. He was convincing in that role."

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See also: The Golden Seal, Mustang Country, Two Bits & Pepper