The panicked, riderless horse leaps over a trench and into the thick of a smoky, bomb-scarred battle. Artillery shells explode around him as he thunders through the field, huddled troops from both sides looking on in astonishment. Finally the horse becomes entangled in the barbed wire that studs the battleground. He goes to his knees whinnying as the camera closes in on his eyes, which are filled with bewilderment and pain.
The scene is the emotional center of Steven Spielberg's current film War Horse, which follows a thoroughbred named Joey from the bucolic farms of Devon, England, to service in the killing fields of World War I. It's also one of the most complex and frightening moments of animal acting in a movie that is full of them. The bursting bombs, the wild gallop, the barbed wire: watching in a darkened theater, it's hard to believe that Joey--or rather the South African bay named Finder who chiefly plays him--wasn't exposed to real peril on the set.
Animal-loving audience members can breathe easy: Finder was just fine. An experienced Hollywood actor who also starred in 2003's Seabiscuit, Finder was handpicked for the role by the movie's horse master Bobby Lovgren for his equanimity amid the creative chaos of moviemaking. (Thirteen other horses also played Joey, who progresses from colt to adult in the movie.) The filmmakers deployed computer graphics for shots in which bombs appeared to fall near the horse, and the barbed wire was actually harmless plastic. A life-size animatronic horse was used for some closeups, and a representative of the American Humane Association (AHA) oversaw equine safety on set. Even the hardcore activists at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) gave War Horse two thumbs up. "I will not work on a film that doesn't have that level of safety standards," says Lovgren. "It's not just for protecting the horse's interests but mine as well."
Unfortunately, not every Hollywood production meets those high standards. Advocates have long raised concerns about the treatment of animals in film, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. As we learn more about the complex inner lives of animals, and as advances in motion-capture technology and computer graphics make it possible to portray both human and nonhuman characters artificially, it's worth wondering whether live animals should have a future in Hollywood. The debate is especially intense over the use of exotic or wild species like tigers or monkeys--which happen to be among the stars of another major holiday release, the Matt Damon drama We Bought a Zoo.
"I've been doing this for 30 years, and I've come to believe that from the perspective of wild animals, there is nothing good for them in entertainment," says Joyce Tischler, general counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. "I just cannot see a reason to support it."
The Wild West