Retro reviews: Cinema of yesteryear | Sunday Observer

Retro reviews: Cinema of yesteryear

27 September, 2020

The Spanish Riding School in Vienna founded in 1572 is a great equestrian treasure of the western world. And the true story of the survival of this great institution through the tribulations of World War II is projected in the movie The Miracle of the White Stallions was directed by Arthur Hiller. Produced by Walt Disney Studios, and released in 1963, this movie provides an enjoyable story of a lesser known event of World War II.

The plot begins as the threat of Allied air raids cast ominous shadows over Nazi occupied Vienna, and the Director of the Spanish Riding School, Colonel Alois Podhajsky, played remarkably by Robert Taylor, decides to defy strict orders from Berlin not to evacuate the Riding School.

Tacit support for Podhajsky from various levels of military and civil institutions in Vienna unfolds since they consider the Riding School a national treasure and should be relocated for safety. It is a battle of conscience and a battle of institutions that foregrounds the decision making for Podhajsky while he is unwaveringly supported in his decisions by his devoted wife Vedena, portrayed memorably by Lilli Palmer.

Through tact and guile, Podhajsky, his wife and his staff, transport out of Vienna the treasures of the Riding School, the prized white Lipizzaner horses which have a long and illustrious history of being bred as the mounts of The Royal House of Hapsburg in Austria and admired in Europe as skilled show horses with unmatched quality.

Soviet advance

Being granted safe haven in the large estate of the gracious Countess Arco-Valley in Sankt Martin, along with a large group of war refugees, Podhajsky, his wife and his staff soon realise that the Soviet advance of the Allied Forces are hostile and if they reach Sankt Martin the future of the Lipizzaner horses would be grim.

Following a series of events that bring courage and hope to the fore, they soon see an opportunity to save the Riding School by appealing to the contingents of the U.S Army that arrive on the scene. The reputation of the Riding School and Podhajsky’s own accomplishments as an Olympic medallist in dressage are recognised by the U.S soldiers who sympathise with Podhajsky’s concerns of needing to preserve the Lipizzaner horses by rescuing the mares of the breed who are trapped in a Nazi held part of Czechoslovakia which will imminently fall to the Soviets who have a tendency to slaughter horses for meat as food was becoming scarce.

Podhajsky explains that obtaining the mares is imperative for the survival of the Lipizzaner breed which will otherwise die out. After preparing with little time on their hands and putting on an impressive dressage show with the Lipizzaner horses for General George S. Patton of the U.S Army, who himself is a renowned horseman, the Spanish Riding School is officially placed under the protection of the U.S Army.

Daring operation

What follows is a daring operation to rescue the Lipizzaner mares from hostile territory by the U.S. Army while executing a mission to free over a thousand Allied POWs held in the very area the Lipizzaner mares are being held.

The movie ends in a triumph that shows the great cultural treasure of dressage cultivated with Lipizzaner horses by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, continuing its journey as a great institution of continental Europe. The Miracle of the White Stallions is a movie with historical and cultural knowledge that can be appreciated today as an entertaining classical film for the whole family.