Adventures on Horseback: Lights, camera, action!

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, May 9, 2018

From running past burning buildings to jumping smoke — filled trenches with cannons thundering, a movie horse must have nerves of steel and a willing, trusting nature.

My thoroughbred, Count of War, showed all that when he was cast as the star’s mount in a Civil War movie.

As Civil War reenactors, Count and I had done a few movies, mostly as extras in the background. It pays fairly well, and it’s fun to see yourself on the screen. 

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A friend of a friend was on the crew of “The Last Confederate — The Story of Robert Adams,” starring Julian Adams. They had tried some local horses that showed up with Western saddles and freaked out when the shooting started. When my friend mentioned I did Civil War re-enacting, they called me.

The next thing I knew, I was the wrangler, the re-enactor coordinator and the historical consultant for the film. I even put on my uniform — and once, a hoop skirt — for a few background shots. I think I was a blur going past the cameras a time or two and maybe a voice off camera.

Count was in the center of the action, though. When we filmed at the Battles of Atlanta site, he had to jump a trench.

The trench was about 6 feet wide and deep enough for a camera crew to hide in. The far side had logs stacked about 3 1/3 feet high.

On the takeoff side there were cameras, cranes, wires people and chaos. On the landing side to the left was a 12-foot wide billowing, shimmering light reflecting fabric board, standing about 12 feet high. Across from it was another camera crew.

Inside the trench, a camera crew was on the right side, and on the left was a row of extras leaning against the logs, firing their rifles. Count had a lane about 6 feet wide to jump through.

I held him behind his mark, waiting for the go signal. The smoke machines started up, the guns started roaring and the director called, “Roll sound!”

The soundman hollered back, “Rolling!”

Count had about three strides before the jump. He leaped forward and soared over the trench, landing perfectly on the far side.

Now Count was no dummy. He quickly figured out what was going on and, after a few takes, was ready to go when the director said “roll sound.” I had to ask the director to use other words or hand signals so Count wouldn’t anticipate the take off.

The shot in the movie is really great. It certainly makes Julian’s character look like a hero. Fortunately, he could ride well enough to stay out of Count’s way and let him do his thing.

Movie making is not all glitz and glamour. The days start early and last long into the nights. The work is hard, and when most of the cast and crew are at a late supper, the wrangler is still caring for the horses.

We did get to meet Amy Redford, as in Robert’s daughter. She was very nice and liked horses.

There was one really cold night that Julian asked me if I had a horse that was OK with fire. They were going to film the burning of Columbia and had to get it in one take.

In the scene, the heroine was supposed to run out of a burning house, jump on a horse and make her escape as the town erupted in chaos and burned around her. Imagine the scene of people fleeing Atlanta in “Gone with the Wind.”

I had available several re-enactors’ horses we were using for the movie, but the only one trusted not to totally freak out was Count. We painted a stripe on his face so he looked like a different horse, and headed to the set for a nighttime shoot.

I think it was about 17 degrees. I swear you could hear the frost crackling on the ground. I was surprised the cameras worked in that cold. It was a very long night.

They wanted me to tie Count to a post that was barely set into the ground and would fall over if you breathed on it. Movie people don’t get safety around horses very well. I could just see Count pulling back and the post smacking him in the face, so I just looped his lead loosely around it and told him to stand.

The scene was chaos. Flames roared out the windows about 5 feet in front of Count. Horses galloped through the set, their riders carrying flaming torches. People were running, screaming and fighting.

Bless Count. He stood quietly amidst all the clamor until the heroine ran out and jumped into the saddle. She turned him in a circle past a two-story house with orange flames devouring the white antebellum columns. Count broke into a trot and then cantered out of the scene.

“Cut! Print!” the director called.

Because of a problem with the Screen Actors Guild, the movie never made the big screen, so Count and I never got to walk the red carpet — that is, until he made an appearance at a local premiere of the “Buck” movie — but that’s another story.

“The Last Confederate” is based on the true story of Julian Adams’ great-great-grandparents during the Civil War. It’s a pretty good movie, and I think you can still find it online.