Reel Beach: The Legend of the Shipwrecked Stallion and its movie connections

Walter Farley’s book The Black Stallion tells the story of a shipwrecked horse that is rescued and goes on to be champion racer.


When you see “based on a true story” at the beginning of a film, do you take that with a grain of salt? Movies often weave fictional stories into historical accounts such as The Great Escape. The reverse is also true when real people and events find their way into screenplays and novels.

When Erich Segal wrote his best-selling 1970 novel Love Story about Harvard in the 1960s he included a character named Davey Johnston, captain of the Harvard hockey team.

That would be our former Governor-General David Johnston who was Segal’s friend and jogging partner.

Never saying sorry

Love Story claimed that, “Love is never having to say you’re sorry.” Johnston may be sorry that he earlier agreed to take on the thankless job of “special rapporteur”, but happy birthday to him anyway. (Johnston was born on June 28, 1941.)

That same year, 1941, author Walter Farley (1915-1989) wrote a classic children’s book, The Black Stallion.

The New York Times described the stallion as “the most famous fictional horse of the century.”

In 1979 the best-selling novel was adapted into one of the finest movies ever filmed in the Beach (with “the Black Stallion” galloping down Kenilworth Avenue to Queen Street East).

I always thought the story of a shipwrecked horse who survives to win a big race was a complete fantasy.

I recently watched National Velvet (1944) which starred a 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor. (That really is Taylor falling off the horse and injuring her back.) Her friend Mi (Mickey Rooney) is a former jockey who tells a story about a race horse who survived a shipwreck, swam to an island, was rescued by fishermen and went on to win the 1904 Grand National Steeplechase in England.

The tale has been repeated many times, including on the BBC.

There’s only one problem. Like many legends, it’s not quite true.

Print the Legend

There was a horse from New Zealand named Moifaa who won the 1904 Grand National and had indeed come to the United Kingdom by ship, but it was a different horse (Kiora) in the same race who actually survived a shipwreck and was stranded until being rescued by fishermen.

The ship S.S. Thermopylae was sailing from Australia in 1899 when it ran aground on a reef in dense fog off the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. No lives were lost. The Toronto Star of Sept. 12, 1899 ran the headline, “Steamer Wrecked at Cape Town.”

The two race horses onboard, Kiora and Chesney, managed to escape.

An exhausted Kiora was found the next day stranded on a shallow reef and years later ran in the Grand National of 1904 but fell and did not finish the race that Moifaa won.

Perhaps Enid Bagnold (1889-1981) had heard the horse’s tale and worked it into her 1935 novel National Velvet as a shipwreck off Ireland.

Maybe Walter Farley knew the story when he wrote the first of many books on The Black Stallion.

Coincidentally, in the 1979 film version Mickey Rooney plays an ex-jockey who helps train a child to win a big race on the back of a stallion who miraculously survived a shipwreck off the coast of Africa.

Whatever the truth, it’s a terrific story.

Filmmakers often stretch the truth to make a more entertaining movie.

Don’t get me started on the bogus storylines of films like Argo.

We like our heroes. Great art has its own truths. Critic Roger Ebert wrote about Norman Jewison’s 1990 film The Hurricane (which filmed two scenes in the Beach):

“Those who seek the truth about a man from the film of his life might as well seek it from his loving grandmother. Most biopics, like most grandmothers, see the good in a man and demonize their enemies…The Hurricane is not a documentary, but a parable in which two lives are saved by the power of the written word.”

Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

The name of the horse who played “the Pie” in National Velvet was King Charles. And whatever happened to Moifaa? He was purchased by the future King Edward VII and spent his retirement as a riding horse on royal hunts.

Lots of carrots and apples I trust.

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