Its full title was Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions, the Autobiography of a Horse. Written in 1877 by Anna Sewell it became an immediate bestseller. Although regarded as a children’s novel, Sewell did not write Black Beauty specifically for young people. She said the purpose of her work was “to induce kindness, sympathy and an understanding treatment of horses”.
More than 50 million copies have been sold around the world.
Inevitably, when a book is popular there are filmmakers keen to transfer that bestseller to the silver screen. The first attempt was a black and white silent movie in 1921. Only four of the seven reels exist today, which are probably more than enough. Since then there have been seven feature films, a mini-series, an animated version and even a live production that toured the UK in 2011.
The latest adaptation now showing on the Disney Channel comes from Ashley Avis, who directed, edited and wrote the screenplay. In this contemporary remake the horse is a mustang mare born in the American west, captured and taken from the herd. Jo Green, a 17-year-old girl grieving the loss of both of her parents, is healed by the horse-human bond. It stars Kate Winslet voicing the inner thoughts of Black Beauty, Mackenzie Foy as Jo and Iain Glen as a horse trainer.
The movie was shot last year around Cape Town, in the wine region of Stellenbosch, and the red rock country of Piketberg in the foothills of a low mountain range in the Western Cape. The horses were sourced by Elbrus Ourtaev, formerly a Cossack rider with the Moscow State Circus and now based in South Africa.
“I got involved with the film industry as a stuntman then started a company called Film Equus,” says Elbrus, who is also a martial arts trainer. I was working on the series Troy: Fall of a City before becoming the horse coordinator on Black Beauty.”
Elbrus would send photos and footage to Cody Rawson-Harris in Australia who had been hired as the film’s liberty horse trainer having been recommended by Bill Lawrence, a leading American movie horseman.
“Earlier in the year Bill, who was in China, had given me a job in Turkey working on a film about a racehorse,” says Cody, who is a second-generation animal trainer. (His parents Heath Harris and Evanne Chesson have been involved in the movie industry since the seventies).
“I selected the Black Beauty horses via this virtual sourcing program, and I liaised with the director (Ashley Avis) who I was yet to meet in person. When I arrived in Cape Town from Sydney, the horses were all in one place.” There were four main ‘Beauties’ – all off-the-track four-year-olds. (Jenny, Rosie, Spirit and Awards). Jenny was a true black while the others were dyed and all had painted-on stars.
Cody had to assess the environment, ensure locations were horse-safe, meet with cast and crew and, generally, get a move on. He had only six weeks before the filming of some liberty pre-shoots, which the producers wanted to use as incentives to attract more funding.
“Training horses for movies is different to training them for live shows – it has to be very precise,” says 48-year-old Cody who first worked on a film set when he was seven. His parents had been the animal wranglers on The Earthling (1980) starring William Holden.