I remember the long summer days when I used to visit my Nan’s cottage-esque house in Wollongong as a child. Looking for several hours to kill, I would rummage through her vintage VHS collection of TV-recorded films. Among the library was the staples: The Great Escape, Lawrence of Arabia, she even had the 1925 silent film Ben Hur (but of course, due to the running time it was split up over two separate tapes).
Ben Hur (1925) was a childhood classic of mine, which is why it is heart-wrenching to hear the dark reality of such an appraised film. One of the most iconic scenes is without doubt the Chariot race. Unbeknownst to my younger self, this incredibly magnificent scene resulted in the deaths of at least one-hundred and fifty horses (Baker, 2011, p. 178), which is evident in the clip below.
EDIT: To make the chariot race more exciting, MGM studio put up a US$100 prize to the winner (Kemp, 2011, p. 19).
The director of this specific scene, B. Reeves Eason, is particularly known for his spectacular action scenes for early major-budget films (Reid, 2005, p. 160). Likewise, in the 1936 film The Charge of the Light Brigade starring the Australian icon, Errol Flynn, a scene B. Reeves Eason once again directed resulted in the inhumane death of many horses. As Stillman describes, piano wire was attached to a horse’s front legs, and as the horse would begin to run, “the rider would jump just before the wire ran out, and the horse took a hard and often fatal fall” (p. 216, 2008).
Such volatile standards, as depicted in the clip above, caused an unprecedented outcry in both Hollywood and the public, resulting in the American Humane Society (AHA) to have representatives on all film sets that use animals. The AHA has since remained as a key component to movie sets to this day, ensuring animal safety standards with their famous ‘No animals were harmed’ disclaimer.
Although it would seem.
As the Hollywood Reporter discovered, the AHA have, in recent years, downplayed various incidents that would most definitely contradict their esteemed disclaimer. During the making of the transnational film Life of Pi (2011), the real life tiger, King, nearly drowned during a take (Baum, 2013). An email sent by King’s trainer and AHA representative was later leaked to the public. Nevertheless, the film was awarded the AHA disclaimer.
In a similar incident, during the filming of the 2005 Disney film Eight Below, the hero dog was severely beaten by the trainer, which included 5 punches to the diaphragm. Once again, the film was awarded the disclaimer.
This undoubtedly questions the integrity and legitimacy of the AHA disclaimer. How can we, as an audience, be reassured that animal safety standards are being maintained and enforced when loopholes are used to earn such a label, regardless of whether “the animals weren’t intentionally harmed or the incidents occurred while cameras weren’t rolling” (Baum, 2013). Should it not be a priority of filmmakers and the AHA alike to respect their actors who didn’t even sign onto their role?
For more information and further reading, check out #ANIMALSWEREHARMED on twitter.
Baker, S 2003, ‘In the Literature’, review of Animals in Film by Jonathan Burt, Anthrozoos, vol. 16, no. 2, pp 178 – 180.
Baum, G 2013, ‘No Animals Were Harmed’, The Hollywood Reporter, viewed 23 March 2015, <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/feature/>
Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ 1925, VOD, MGM, California US, directed by Fred Niblo.
Life of Pi 2011, VOD, Fox 2000, Taiwan, directed by Ang Lee.
Stillman, D 2008, Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the West, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, US.
Reid, JH 2005, Movie Westerns: Hollywood Films the Wild, Wild West, Lulu.com, p. 160.
Kemp, P 2011, Cinema: The Whole Story, Thames & Hudson ltd, London UK, p. 18.