Australia ran for almost three hours and not everyone loved it; critics and commentators were divided. “It literally swept me off my feet,” swooned Oprah Winfrey. “Twisted history and garbled geography,” barked Germaine Greer on its release at the end of 2008. “It bears more relation to fairytale than fact.” “A wildly ambitious, luridly indulgent spectacle of romance, action and melodrama. Utterly preposterous and insanely entertaining,” declared the Washington Post. And a Time magazine reviewer wrote that she left a screening of Australia feeling drained and weakened “as if I’d suffered a gradual poisoning at the hands of a mad scientist”.
But no matter what was said, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia made money at the box office and later from DVD sales. And many of its locations briefly profited as tourist destinations. Most importantly, the film was instrumental in keeping a whole bunch of wranglers, livestock contractors and horse trainers very busy for months. It also showcased performance horses belonging to some of this country’s leading equestrians – horses that had never before been on a film location or inside a movie studio.
One of the first to be cast was ‘Brian’, aka Berkeley Castle, owned, trained and ridden by Roger Fitzhardinge, whom Equestrian Life readers would know as an FEI dressage rider, coach, commentator and regular contributor to this publication.
By Montora out of My Lady Leica, the handsome grey Warmblood was purchased as a four-year-old and Roger trained him up to Grand Prix. He was successful both as a dressage horse and a show hunter, and in 2004 came ninth with Anne Skinner at the Athens Paralympics.
Brian’s foray into film-making came as a result of a suggestion by Roger’s friend, Lenore Holborow-Harvey. “She was working with the horses on Australia and there was a call for a big grey to play one of Lady Sarah Ashley’s horses stabled at her stately home in England. It had to be able to piaffe and passage,” recalls Roger.
“I took him to Fox Studios in Sydney next to the old Sydney Showground and rode him there for Baz Luhrmann. He was quite taken with him and between the two of us we decided what Nicole could do on Brian and what would work.” Roger had been shown video footage of Nicole riding around Centennial Park, and for six weeks prior to filming gave her daily lessons on Brian who was boarded at the local stables.
“She took instruction well and was very conscious of her position. The night before the first scenes were to be shot we went for some last-minute practice in a nearby round yard. The paparazzi had rushed to the park believing that was where she would be riding. I was beside Brian as we worked on the passage. When Nicole’s position got a little bumpy, I grasped her jodhpur belt to guide her down into the saddle to get a better feel. She stood up just as I pulled and her pants went halfway down her bottom! Thankfully, all the photographers were elsewhere!”
Brian just got on with his job totally unconcerned that one of the world’s highest-paid actresses was baring her nether regions in a sandpit in Sydney.
Throughout the many days of filming he never put a foot wrong. “By nature he was a spooky horse and couldn’t go past a dressage letter without shying,” recalls Roger, “yet he was totally unfazed by camera dollies, crews, cranes and cables, although he did get upset on one occasion. A red felt saddlecloth had to be glued on to his conventional one. When it was time to get on and walk, he threatened to buck. When I got off he kept looking at his side and I was worried he might have colic, but he was reacting to the glue. It had oozed and dried on to his skin and every time he moved it pulled at the hairs of his coat!”
The problem was fixed and away they went.
When a Vogue magazine shoot was organised with Annie Leibovitz, the celebrated American portrait photographer, Roger was somewhat apprehensive. Brian had to stand still for hours in a darkened studio while assistants scuttled about with screens, umbrellas and backdrops as Leibovitz peered into a computer shouting instructions. This could end badly, he thought. But Brian’s behaviour was exceptional, Kidman looked magnificent in her fancy riding habit and the end results were great.