Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Miracle Of The White Stallions

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Miracle Of The White Stallions

Walt Disney’s name had been synonymous with family entertainment practically from the very beginning of his career. But that doesn’t mean that all he made were children’s films. Every so often, he’d become interested in a story that held very little appeal for the small fry and was geared, more or less, toward adults. Walt being Walt, they were still suitable for viewing by audiences of all ages. It’s just that younger audiences would likely be bored stiff by them.

Miracle Of The White Stallions appears to be one of Walt’s grown-up passion projects brought on by his life-long love of horses. It’s inspired by the true story of Colonel Alois Podhajsky, an Olympic equestrian and director of the world-famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna, and his efforts to save the school’s one-of-a-kind Lipizzaner horses from the ravages of World War II. In a way, it’s a spiritual cousin to two very different earlier films: the World War II documentary Victory Through Air Power and Almost Angels, the behind-the-curtain look at the school that houses the Vienna Boys’ Choir.

Podhajsky himself served as a consultant on the film and choreographed the performance sequences, much as Alexander P. de Seversky consulted on the adaptation of his book, Victory Through Air Power. Podhajsky can be spotted in the final performance, riding close behind Robert Taylor, the actor who portrays him. AJ Carothers adapted Podhajsky’s book into screenplay form. Prior to this, Carothers worked primarily in television including a stint on Fred MacMurray’s sitcom, My Three Sons. Miracle Of The White Stallions was Carothers’ first job at Disney but it won’t be his last.

The director was another newcomer to the Disney studio. Arthur Hiller also got his start in TV, first in his native Canada, then in the US where he helmed multiple episodes of such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Route 66. Miracle Of The White Stallions was his second feature, following the teen drama The Careless Years in 1957. This would be Hiller’s only Disney film. In 1970, his film Love Story would turn into a phenomenon that catapulted him to the A-list. He’d later direct such comedy classics as Silver Streak and The In-Laws, as well as a handful of projects for the Disney-adjacent Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures beginning with 1987’s Outrageous Fortune. There is absolutely nothing in Miracle Of The White Stallions that foreshadows his future career.

When it came time to assemble the cast, Walt again looked outside of the usual suspects. Robert Taylor had been a popular leading man since the 30s, starring in such films as Magnificent Obsession and Quo Vadis. In 1959, he crossed over to television, starring in the popular crime drama The Detectives. He had just finished his stint on that show when he made Miracle Of The White Stallions, his only Disney appearance.

Podhajsky’s wife was played by Lilli Palmer. She’d become a star in Hollywood in films like Cloak And Dagger and Body And Soul. But she also had an active career in European productions such as the 1958 remake of Mädchen In Uniform. Palmer too was one and done with Disney. She’d continue to bounce back and forth between Europe and Hollywood, film and TV, right up until her death in 1986.

Eddie Albert costars as Podhajsky’s right-hand man, Otto. Albert was already an Oscar-nominated character actor when he made his Disney debut, having received a Best Supporting Actor nod for Roman Holiday. He’d also costarred in Frank Capra’s Our Mr. Sun, the first of the Bell System Science Series, which a lot of people think was made by Disney but wasn’t. Eddie Albert will eventually find his way back to this column but not for awhile. A couple of years after Miracle Of The White Stallions, he landed the lead in the long-running sitcom Green Acres. In 1973, he’d get his second Oscar nomination for The Heartbreak Kid. By the time he gets back to Disney in 1975, he’ll have become a beloved fixture of film and television.

As the film opens, World War II has entered a critical phase. Colonel Podhajsky has been ordered by the Nazis to keep the Spanish Riding School open as a symbol to Austrians that life is continuing as normal. But the war is getting closer to Vienna. Podhajsky has already removed a number of priceless works of art and relocated the Lipizzaner mares to Czechoslovakia for their safety. After an aerial attack comes perilously close to destroying the school, Podhajsky again seeks permission to move the stallions to safety. And once again, he is denied.

But one Nazi officer remains sympathetic to Podhajsky’s request. General Tellheim (Curd Jürgens or, in the Americanized spelling, Curt Jurgens) reminds Podhajsky that his order to protect the school’s most precious artifacts remains in effect. And what is the Spanish Riding School’s most precious artifact if not the lineage of the Lipizzaners?

Podhajsky, his wife and staff load up their remaining wagons and flee Vienna at night. After a perilous train journey, they arrive at the estate of Countess Arco-Valley (Brigitte Horney), a resistance sympathizer who has opened the grounds of her home to refugees after her husband was placed in a concentration camp. While they’re at the estate, the war ends and American troops arrive, using the estate as a base of operations.

American Major Hoffman (James Franciscus) recognizes Podhajsky from his victories at the Olympics. So Podhajsky asks for one more favor. He needs to retrieve his mares from Russian-occupied Czechoslovakia. Without them, the ultra-rare Lipizzaner breed will die out. There’s nothing Hoffman can do but he has an idea. The troops are about to receive a visit from noted horse-fancier General George S. Patton (John Larch). If Podhajsky can throw together an impromptu performance that impresses Patton, he might be able to help.

Miracle Of The White Stallions is an interesting, surprisingly mature film. It’s essentially a war movie but most of the action takes place off-screen. There are a couple of well-staged fighting sequences and some suspense but it’s overall a very talky film. That’s not necessarily a negative. The cast is uniformly excellent and the dialogue is good. But it’s not a movie for the easily bored. The movie’s reliance on conversation was probably a necessity brought on by budget restrictions. This is one of those rare cases where the real-life incidents were actually more action-packed than the cinematic depiction. The Disney version pares things down to the bare minimum.

Podhajsky is an unusual choice for a leading man. He’s a strict taskmaster devoted to duty and tradition and Robert Taylor does nothing to soften his rough edges. The support of the folksier and more likable Eddie Albert is essential in making Podhajsky more relatable. Curd Jürgens also gets a terrific scene where he comes to terms with the fact that he’s now a Nazi war criminal. He’s not proud of what he did during the war but refuses to hide behind the excuse of just following orders. The sympathetic Nazi can be a tough character to swallow but Jürgens does some nice work shading in General Tellheim.

Of course, the stallions are the real stars of the movie. Classical dressage is an extremely specialized skill and Hiller uses it sparingly, treating it almost like a special effect. The film builds up to an extended performance and it’s genuinely impressive. If you had any doubts that these horses and traditions were worth preserving, this sequence alone dispels them. The film probably could have benefited from including a bit more of the stallions, particularly early on. It’s one thing to be told what makes the Lipizzaners unique and the movie’s opening voice-over narrator does exactly that. But it’s something else to see them in action. Giving the audience a taste up-front could have saved some time later on.

Released in March 1963, Miracle Of The White Stallions was greeted with a collective shrug by critics and audiences. This unfortunately seemed to be a fairly common reaction whenever Disney strayed too far outside his comfort zone. It’s too bad because this is actually a pretty good little movie. If this or other atypical Disney productions had received a more positive response, maybe Walt would have felt emboldened to take more risks with his movies. As it is, this remains an interesting curiosity, another orphaned Disney film you won’t find on Disney+ or on Blu-ray. It’s worth a look if you can track it down, especially if you love horses.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

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