On this day in 1938 a small horse named Seabiscuit defeated a mighty champion, Triple Crown winner War Admiral during a race at the Pimlico Special in Baltimore deemed “the match of the century.” To commemorate the event I am dedicating this entry to a post-classic film that honors the life of Seabiscuit – and unlikely heroes.
Seabiscuit (2003) a film directed by Gary Ross, is based on the true story depicted in the best-selling book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand. This is the story of the convergence of four lives set on an unpaved road to make history.
Charles Howard makes and maintains a fortune during unlikely times in America. A good man who starts out as a bicycle salesman, makes improvements on a car and becomes a millionaire. For all his financial blessings, however, Howard is not immune from heartbreak and the most unimaginable one occurs when his only son dies in a freak accident. Unable to survive the tragedy together, his wife leaves him. Howard is desolate, overwhelmed with guilt and an almost unbearable sense of loss. Then one day he meets a young woman and a small horse.
Tom Smith is a vagabond, for all intents and purposes. His connections in life are with animals, with nature. He sleeps in the woods, wherever he happens to end up at the end of each day. One day he saves a mare from certain death when she is going to be “put down” due to an injury. He nurses her back to health, using natural means and she becomes his best friend. He has all a man could want, being the kind of man who wants for nothing but to be left alone to live a simple life. Then one day he meets a rich man who owns a small horse.
John M. Pollard, known as “Red,” to all but his family due to his red hair, grows up the eldest in a large family of comfortable means. His parents are strict disciplinarians who constantly stress the importance of knowledge and reading. Red loves reading but has another passion and gift not learned through his family, he loves horses and is a natural at riding them. He forges an instant connection with the animals and they with him.
The Great Depression hits suddenly and Red’s family loses everything, including will and hope. Unable to feed their children, Red’s parents leave their eldest son to his dream, his passion, selling him to a stable owner where he would be surrounded by a few measly belonging – his books – and horses. But he is completely alone as a young man in the cold world of the Depression. He does all he can to survive, including fighting for a place in the world and food in his belly. Then one day he meets two men and small horse.
Seabiscuit was a descendent of the great racing champion, Man O’ War, but he was a runt, a small horse interested only in eating and sleeping. Or so all who crossed his path thought. As a result Seabiscuit was pushed aside, thought insignificant, he would certainly amount to nothing, as is the case with all of whom nothing is asked. Add to his life without promise an ill temper. Seabiscuit doesn’t like people riding him. Then one day, he meets three men. One with the means to bring out his potential. One with inexplicable faith. The last possessing a firm love and limitless understanding.
Destiny brings Howard, Smith, Pollard and Seabiscuit together and once they all converge, the film – true to life – is destined for greatness. And it delivers. Although, I must say up front that despite this story being true, as a plot in a film it’s not necessarily unique. It is not unlike other sports films that tell of set backs and eventual triumphs reached by the characters beating seemingly insurmountable odds. But here that familiar story is told quite effectively and this is a memorable film for many reasons, a few of which I’ll attempt to explain without giving a play-by-play. Although we know of Seabiscuit’s story and accomplishments so no major spoilers can be served, there’s still plenty to be touched by and “awes” to be expressed.
The racing depicted in Seabiscuit is thrilling, beautifully shot by director, Gary Ross and his cinematographer, John Schwartzman, who give us up close and personal insights of each race – chilling perspectives that bring us right in to the action. I was somewhat surprised by the seamless shooting as you are never aware of a camera. I’m not sure this makes sense but it is meant as high praise – as though the races are real and we are there, not just observers from the sidelines. It’s beautifully done. In truth, Schwartzman deserves enthusiastic kudos for the entire film. It is breathtaking. And for the story another mention of Ross, who wrote the screenplay – we get to know the world of horse racing from the inside. Not just the accolades and glory, but the down and dirty world of a difficult and dangerous, often cut-throat sport. It is so for both human and animal.
The acting in Seabiscuit is also worthy of note. Jeff Bridges who never gives a bad performance is particularly affecting as Charles Howard and Tobey Maguire who plays Red Pollard has never been better. Although the entire case is great, really – Chris Cooper as Smith, Elizabeth Banks as Marcela Howard and Michael Angarano as the young Red Pollard turn in memorable performances. But it is William H. Macy in a supporting and extremely annoying, if hilarious, role that one cannot forget. Macy plays Tick Tock McGlaughlin, a radio announcer who we see and hear during all the horse races and an occasional news update. Apparently this character’s claim to fame was the use of gadgets to make sounds emphasizing excitement during his commentaries. As Tick Tock Macy is grating, but so wonderful in the part – not surprising for him, one of the best character actors working today. A lesser actor wouldn’t have made a rather small part in a huge film quite so memorable. “No more match races for this little horse because frankly they’re all out of matches. Who’s he gonna race? Pegasus?”
If you visit this blog regularly you know I normally post commentaries about the classic films I love and when I decide to comment on more modern releases they usually have classic elements. That’s the case here, which has a lot to do with why I am drawn to Seabiscuit. Not to say I never like new or modern films and stories, because I do. But, more often than not, it is the classics that get me going. So in this regard I have to mention what classics elements in this film “get” to me. To start Seabiscuit is story and character-driven, which is lost (it seems) in so many modern films. Moreover, this film uses elements found in classic movies that I never tire of. Two of those are particularly attractive to me, aside from the time in which the story takes place. First, there’s David McCullough – author and actor – whose voice we hear as narrator throughout Seabiscuit. Through it we hear and see about historical events of the times in which the story takes place. I couldn’t quite place his voice as the film opens although I knew I recognized it from somewhere. But then it hit me that Mr. McCullough has narrated many episodes of PBS’ American Experience, a series I watch whenever time allows. His is a warm, rich and nostalgic voice, a gorgeous and soothing sound that adds a lot of warmth to this film and story – reminiscent of classic epics or Westerns. Or at least, that’s what comes to mind.
The other irresistible element that makes this film so attractive to me in the classic vein is the use of newspaper montages. I’ve mentioned before how much I love newspaper montages in film as tools for storytelling rarely used in modern movies, but Seabiscuit is filled with them. Also attractive to the classics lover, by the way, is the music in the film, the fabulous standards and more from the era that one never tires of.
I am moved to tears every time I watch Seabiscuit. I can’t quite explain why as I am not necessarily an animal person, know nothing about horse racing and don’t cry easily while watching movies. So I can only attribute it to the fact that this is a good movie with a lot of heart, just like its characters. I am not the only one who thinks so either. I don’t remember hearing much buzz about Seabiscuit when it was released and it seems that’s due to my terrible memory since it received seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture. Other Oscar nods went to Gary Ross for writing the screenplay, art direction, cinematography, costume design, editing, and sound mixing. All well-deserved.
I highly recommend everyone watch this movie. Although apparently many have done just that as this film sold more than 5.5 million copies on DVD, the most for a dramatic film. If you are one of the ones that hasn’t seen it, do so and come back and tell me what you think. A too-small horse, a too big jockey, guts and heart from nowhere, and a wonderful movie was made. That’s my take.
“You know, everybody thinks we found this broken-down horse and fixed him, but we didn’t. He fixed us. Every one of us. And I guess in a way we kinda fixed each other too.” – Red Pollard
This is dedicated to all the Seabiscuits of the world, to all our untapped potential.
In honor of that small horse who beat all the odds to become a legend, I’m posting the link to Saving Horses, Inc., an organization that works toward rescuing former race horses from being thrown away, literally. There are several links on that site for anyone interested in learning more about the horrible practices regarding horses not good enough to race or that are deemed no longer useful. A worthy cause, certainly worth reading about.
And now this non-animal lover needs a tissue. What are the odds?