Movie vs. Book: The Miracle of the White Stallions and The Perfect Horse

miracle_of_the_white_stallions_-_film_posterOne of the interesting questions I am often asked is how my new book The Perfect Horse differs from the Miracle of the White Stallions, a 1962 Disney movie that was much responsible for bringing the Lipizzaner and their story a more general recognition among the American public in the 1960s. That film was largely based on a memoir written by Colonel Alois Podhajsky called My Dancing White Horses and focuses narrowly on the fate of the Lipizzaner in Austria.

I like a good movie as much as anyone, but as a historian, I find it fascinating to see what gets changed, compressed, or lost as a true historical event makes its journey to the silver screen.

The Timeline:

Disney Version: In the Miracle of the White Stallions, the movie has reordered the true order of events to make it seem as if Patton first granted protection for the Spanish Riding School and the performing stallions, and then learned that the mares and foals from Austria’s national stud farm were in danger.

The Real Deal:  In reality, the mares and foals were rescued first, and only later, after the war was over, Patton saw the stallions perform.  At that point, he agreed to send Podhajsky to look through the horses captures in Czechoslovakia to try to repatriate the Austrian horses.

Photo 020 Lipizzaner led by POWsThe Horses:

Disney Version:  In the Miracle of the White Stallions, the messy and real wartime story was simplified.  Only Austrian Lipizzaner stallions, mares, and foals are involved.  Once the American Army has collected them, they return them to Austria.

The Real Deal:  The Third Reich had managed to collect up almost all of Europe’s Lipizzaner breeding stock, including some that had been in private hands. They had also seized some of Poland’s finest Arabians.  In addition, they had accepted a refugee herd of Russian Kabardin horses that was almost as large as the Lipizzaner  Arabian herds. When the horses were moved safely into American-held German territory, the knotty problem of what to do with the non-Austrian horses had just begun!

Lessing riding Lipizzaner copyThe Germans: 

Disney Version:  In the Disney movie, the role of the brave German and Czech officers who risked treason to save the horses was completely erased, as was the fact that Podhajsky was appointed to his position as Director of the Spanish Riding School by the Germans after they annexed Austria in 1939. Disney also spins the fact that during the war years, the Spanish Riding School was under the control of the German military.

The Real Deal: One of the most striking and moving facets of this story, to me, as an historian, was that even the bitterest of enemies can work toward a common good.  In The Perfect Horse, the men shared a common code of honor toward horses that they had learned during their education as cavalry soldiers, and I believe this was what helped them to come together when the horses needed them. The Disney version was released at the height of the Cold War– at that time it was typical for storylines to play up the Russian menace and downplay Austria’s wartime cooperation with the Germans.  Now, more than seventy years since war’s end, we are able to take a more balanced look at the story.

The American Heroes:

patton wartermarkedDisney Version:  The man most responsible for saving the horses was the late General George Patton.

The Real Deal:  The real American heroes in this story were not household names– Tom Stewart, Hank Reed, Ferdinand Sperl, Quin Quinlivan, and others. But you can see that Disney bet on the fact that a character named George Patton would make better box office. Interestingly, I discovered in my research, that Colonel Hank Reed served as a consultant on the movie. I read several accounts written by his men, in which they complained that Reed hadn’t demanded that Disney give him proper credit for his important role in saving the horses, but that Reed had simply shrugged it off, happy to let the lion’s share of credit go to Patton, who had been a personal friend of Reed’s.  If I could choose a single word to describe the men I was writing about, it would be the word “humble.”

The rest of the story…

Disney Version: of course, the most striking difference between movies and books is always that a movie can usually only tell a snippet of a story compared to what a book can tell.

WitezIIThe Real Deal: to me, one of the most compelling elements of the story was the fate of Poland’s Arabians during the war.  If you are interested in learning even more about this, I would encourage you to check out a documentary entitled Path to Glory, which has wonderful background on Poland’s Arabians before, during and after the war.  There is a also a previous book, And Miles to Go, by Linnell Smith, (i’m afraid it’s out of print and expensive, but you may be able to find it in the library. That story does contain some fictionalized elements, but the basic telling of the story is accurate– and it’s appropriate for younger readers.

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8 Responses

  1. Pete ledesma

    The Perfect Horse is the best non- fiction book I’ve read this year. Elizabeth Letts’ painstakingly researched book takes you on an emotional gallop through war torn europe at the height of World Two. The harrowing story of the Lipazander stallions is obviously for Letts, a labor of love, and and when she’s holding the reins dear reader, you’d better hold on!

  2. Christine Link

    As a horse lover I fell in love with this movie. It was the first that I learned about the Lipizzaner horses. I did go on to read more about their history and did find a copy of My Dancing White Horses. While I know the movie is inaccurate it still remains one my all time favorite horse movies.

    • Snowman: The Eighty-Dollar Champion

      I had never seen it– and never watched the whole thing until I had finished the book, as I didn’t want it to influence me. Then I was surprised at how much was Hollywood! On the other hand, it was a very big boon to the Spanish Riding School, helping to find them fans all over the world!

  3. Bethany

    How exciting to come across this book! A random memory this evening sent me searching for the story of Patton and the Lippizaners, and after reading a great article, I really wanted more of the story. I thought about getting the movie, but a little voice in my head said, “This story deserves some real in-depth research. You know who should write this book? That lady that wrote about Harry deLeyer. She’d do a great job!” Then I searched online for what books might already be out there, and it turns out that “that lady” had the same idea!!!! Your book is now on its way to my house, and I couldn’t be more excited!! I already want to tell all my friends about it!

    On a side note, I remember checking out And Miles to Go from the library as a child, though I don’t remember the story. I’ll have to ‘re-read that one and check out the documentary.

    • Snowman: The Eighty-Dollar Champion

      What an extraordinary coincidence! I hope you enjoy the book– I did use And Miles to Go as a Source, but just like the old children’s book about Snowman, it combined fiction with fact– it was a great read, but some of the characters and situations were invented.

  4. nancy wilkey

    I thought this wonderful book would make a good movie , however, thought the same thing about The Monuments Men, a great book and then the movie – it was a disaster! Was hoping her latest book could go on to a movie, wonderful characters and beautiful horses, and the relationship between both the men and the horses and how enemies came together at times for the horses. What does the author think?

    • Snowman: The Eighty-Dollar Champion

      Would certainly love to see a movie of The Perfect Horse– as long as it was the right director who wanted to maintain the historically accuracy. Thanks for writing!

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