Event Recap: Walt Disney Family Museum’s “Uncovering Miracle of the White Stallions” Adds New Historical Context to Walt Disney’s 1963 Film

To coincide with the Walt Disney Family Museum’s “The Walt Disney Studios and World War II” exhibit, a special virtual event was held to celebrate Miracle of the White Stallions. Produced by Walt Disney Productions in 1963, the film told the little-known story of how the Lipizzan horses were evacuated from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna during the war, saving them so that they could return to performing after the war. The film not only popularized the breed for American audiences, but also brought light to an inspiring story from the war that hadn’t been widely spread at the time.

Participating in the event, titled “Uncovering Miracle of the White Stallions,” was author Elizabeth Letts, whose book The Perfect Horse adds more history to the story from the German side that wasn’t known to the filmmakers at the time. Caryl Carothers, wife of screenplay writer A.J. Carothers was present to talk about her memories of how the film came about and her own visit to Austria with her husband to do research for the film.

The film was based on My Dancing White Horses, an autobiography by Alois Podhajsky, who was the director of the Spanish Riding School and also the main character in Miracle of the White Stallions. Elizabeth Letts hadn’t seen the film while she was researching and writing her book, a story that was inspired while doing research for another project where she came across a photograph of a white Lipizzan horse at a US army base shortly after World War II. She would eventually come to learn where it came from and how it got there.

As one of the most celebrated equestrians of the 20th century, Colonel Podhajsky developed a special bond with horses when he joined the cavalry at 17 during World War I where a horse sacrificed its life to save his. He was directing the Spanish Riding School in Vienna when Germans occupied Austria in 1939, doing everything he could to keep it running under Nazi occupation.

Another key player in how white lipizzans came to the U.S. through the army after the war was Gustav Rau, a German equestrian expert who wasn’t very political, but who’s theories about horse breeding became popular within the third reich for more nefarious reasons. He was given permission to take any horse he wanted from German occupied regions and he began breeding Lipizzans, using horses from the same family and impacting the future of the breed.

Walt Disney loved playing polo before an injury prevented him from doing so, a sport that was practiced by American Cavalry during times of peace to keep their combat skills sharp. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the cavalry found themselves mounting Jeeps and tanks instead of horses, deployed to Europe where Colonel Hank Reed heard about a stable of Lipizzan horses that the Germans had refused to move to a safer location. Two men died in the effort to relocate them, which included horses from the Spanish Riding School in addition to horses bred by Gustav Rau. Alois Podhajsky actually got to perform for General Patton and after the war, the Austrian horses returned to their rightful place, but there were some horses that no longer had a country they belonged to. Several of them were transported back to the U.S.A. to be used in the cavalry. Sadly, the army disbanded that unit shortly after and those horses, including the Lippizan that Elizabeth Letts saw in a photo that sparked her research project, ended up being privately owned. If you want to learn the whole story, be sure to check out her book, The Perfect Horse.

While Caryl Carothers’ husband A.J. didn’t have all of Elizabeth Lett’s information, he did have access not only to Alois Podhajsky’s book, but Alois Podhajsky himself. But that’s getting a bit too far ahead of the story. Having written primarily for anthology series on TV, A.J.'s agent called him one day for a project being looked at for Walt Disney’s The Wonderful World of Color. He soon found himself at Walt Disney Productions in Burbank meeting with Bill Dover, head of story. He provided A.J. with some materials, which A.J. turned into a treatment and submitted shortly after.

A.J. soon found himself walking down an award-lined hallway for a meeting with Walt Disney, who liked his writing so much that he no longer thought it should be a TV movie, but a production for the big screen. Within a week, A.J. and his pregnant wife Caryl were on their way to Vienna after a short stop in Virginia to meet with Hank Reed, the American Colonel who helped save the horses.

In Vienna, Caryl and A.J. were hosted by Peter Herald, Walt Disney’s Head of Production for all European projects. They soon found themselves meeting with Alois Podhajsky and his wife, who lived in the Hofburg palace above the Spanish Riding School. Caryl recalled Podhajsky taking them through the stables where he introduced each horse to them by name. The war may have been over, but signs of it were still all over the city with bombed buildings not yet rebuilt. For all of its elegance, remembrances of the cataclysmic event were all around them. Even the luxurious hotel Caryl and A.J. stayed at once served as headquarters for the Nazis in Vienna.

A.J. Carothers enjoyed a healthy career with Disney, but on his first assignment, he learned quickly that Walt Disney got what he wanted. A.J. thought the film would play better if audiences could see the riding school performance early on, but Walt Disney insisted that it be saved for the ending as a grand finale. At the same time, he also learned that Walt was open to feedback from just about anybody. When the director Walt hired wanted another screenwriter on the project, Walt dismissed him to keep A.J. and asked his new employee if he had any suggestions. A.J. volunteered a director he had worked with on television before, Arthur Hiller, and Walt hired him.

Another request A.J. made that got turned down by Walt was for a specific song to be used in the film. Caryl shared that while at a tavern, musicians played a song the couple requested. Later in the evening as they got up to go, the band played it again and this time, everyone in the tavern sang the song to them as a fond farewell. However, with his own team of songwriters on staff, Walt Disney didn’t see any reason to license another song. Instead, the Sherman Brothers wrote “Just Say Auf Wiedersehen,” the first of many collaborations A.J. had with them, including his work writing the screenplay for The Happiest Millionaire.

“Uncovering Miracle of the White Stallions” not only gave Disney fans insight into Walt Disney’s live-action filmmaking process on a film that has become a rarity in the studio’s canon, but also excellent historical context. Paired with more recent discoveries about what the Lipizzan horses endured during the war, it made for a fascinating deep-dive.

Stay up-to-date on future events from the Walt Disney Family Museum by checking out their event calendar at waltdisney.org/calendar.

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Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).