Ironically, Steven Spielberg’s multi award-nominated Lincoln was shot in Petersburg, Va., and not in Lincoln’s Springfield, Illinois, although all of the wagons, carts, artillery and most of the horses came from Dr. Karl Luthin’s KEL Equine Productions in Downstate Riverton.
From the largest collection of historical war equipment in the US, Spielberg rented 10 head of horses, five trailer loads of Civil War vehicles and props for a massive 10 acre battle scene and canvas wagons in street scenes and the carts in a warehouse scene.
Since Luthin, an equine veterinarian started wrangling horses and gear for period battle reenactments in 1979, his company has provided period collections for some 125 movies and TV shows. The list includes next summer’s Johnny Depp movie, The Lone Ranger, along with Cold Mountain, Secondhand Lions, Gods and Generals and The Last of the Mohicans.
“The thing about Spielberg, he’s spontaneous,” says Luthin, explaining how Spielberg adds new angles without notice. “His set dressers and prop people know how he works… They’re a little paranoid all the time because they’re not sure what he will do.”
Luthin would arrive at 4 a.m. and receive a list of horses they needed to prep. “We’d go to set in the morning, and they’d say, ‘harness them up, you’re going to be army freight drivers this morning, and put on your army uniforms.’”
Luthin reputedly has the largest Civil War collection and the largest period collection anywhere. He jests that his company is “the Walmart of period horse equipment for period movies.”
In fact, he says a big prop house in L.A. recently told him, “We don’t need much [gear], Karl, you have it all. We don’t need to compete with you.”
Fleet of vehicles dating back to 1750s
The company stables some of its 20 head of horses at a 10 acre farm in Riverton, near Springfield, and the rest on 20 acres in the nearby village of Sherman. Fourteen are multi-purpose production horses broke to be ridden, but also used as horse artillery, freight wagon horses, or carriage horses. Luthin provides all the different harnesses required by each type of horse.
Even more impressive are the company’s fleet of 75 vehicles, dating from the French and Indian War in 1750s through World War II German vehicles.
Five 48-foot semi trailers are packed full of everything it takes to dress those time periods, with 80 saddle racks on each trailer. There are 25-35 cavalry uniforms, saddles and accoutrements per time period.
“Production companies won’t rent any more than that, with the exception being more cavalrymen for Civil War gear and uniforms,” he says.
Purchased Fox’ period props in 1999
KEL Equine Productions officially launched in 1999 when Luthin heard that 20th Century Fox was having trouble selling truckloads of horse saddles, tack, props and horse-drawn vehicles. He bought them all.
Quantifying the worth of his inventory is difficult because of its historical value. Names of great movie icons like John Wayne, Gregory Peck and Lawrence Olivier stamped on various gear “make it more valuable than a prop, a prop with history. I wouldn’t want to imagine a price on it. It’d be a lot.”
For The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise, Luthin shipped three truckloads of horses and gear from Central Illinois to the New Zealand location.
But rather than travel so far, he wants to work with period productions in his own backyard. Promoting Sangamon County – (“about a three-and-a-half hour drive from Chicago”) is one of the reasons he formed the Central Illinois Film Commission, with Dean Williams and Jim Bett in 2006.
“If we’re successful, we’ll be able to create jobs and opportunities in our region. We’ve got the locations and resources to do it,” he says.
“If are successful bringing location work to Sangamon County alone,” he says, “it could mean more jobs and opportunities more jobs for Chicago crew willing to travel downstate.