Everybody loves an underdog story. What feels better than cheering for an against-all-odds winner? “Dark Horse,” a new documentary from Louise Osmond that won the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, is actually two underdog stories in one. Like Doublemint gum, it’s twice the fun. It’s the chronicle of people with a dream and a horse named Dream Alliance.
There’s a reason horseracing is called the Sport of Kings, it’s expensive, time consuming and typically the purview of the insanely wealthy. Here’s where the first underdog comes into the tale. Welsh bartender Jan Vokes and husband Brian had a wild idea to invest in the breeding of a championship racehorse. Jan wasn’t a royal slumming it behind the bar but a person looking beyond the depressed economic state of her home village in Cefn Fforest. Assembling a twenty-three-person syndicate of backers they invest in the story’s second underdog, a horse named Dream Alliance. After a slow start the horse becomes a steed sensation, winning the Welsh Grand National and raking in over £137,000 in career earnings.
“Dark Horse” isn’t simply “Seabiscuit” with Welsh accents. Certainly it’s an inspirational story, with amusing jabs at the upper class snobbery associated with the breeding game—check out Tony Kerby bringing a sack of lager and homemade sandwiches to Newbury—but at its heart it is a story about the power of standing up and being recognized. It’s a fable of empowerment, of beating the odds, but Osmond’s deft hand ensures it never feels manipulative. It’s the story of the people not the sport and further proof that fact is often stranger—and more heart warming—than fiction.
In a summer brimming with high flying angels and gravity defying archaeologists comes a movie designed to appeal to that most neglected segment of the movie-going population, adults. Nothing blows up and there isn’t a flaming helicopter or open running wound anywhere in sight. In an attempt at counter programming Universal has scheduled Seabiscuit to go mano-e-mano against drunken Caribbean pirates, scantily clad adventurers and three dimensional spy kids, hoping to bring in the parents of the kids who have been dropping their allowance money at the box-office all season.
Who knows, it just might work. The last time I checked people over the age of fourteen enjoyed movies too.
Seabiscuit is the inspiring story of a horse who became an American folk hero during the depression years. Everything about this movie screams prestige, from the Academy Award winning cast to the narration by PBS regular David McCullough to the sumptuous art design. Hell, screenwriter / director Gary Ross even used to write speeches for President Clinton! The result is a predictable, but likeable movie that demands nothing more from you than to feel better when you leave the theatre than you did when you came in.
Based on a book of the same name by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit reintroduces us to one of the great sports stories from the early part of the last century. There was a time when everyone knew the story, he was so famous in fact that on one occasion hundreds of businesses closed for half a day so their employees could tune in to hear Seabiscuit race against Triple Crown winner War Admiral on the radio. These days, though, because Seabiscuit didn’t endorse Nike or Pepsi, his story has been largely forgotten.
The film begins in the heady days before the stock market crash of 1929. Businessman Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) made his fortune selling cars, and promoting his vision of “the future.” After the tragic death of his son, the future doesn’t seem so bright anymore. Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) is an outsider, shunned by most horse professionals because he believes in healing, not killing wounded animals. At a head taller than any other jockey on the horse racing circuit, Red Pollard (Tobey McGuire) is considered a fringe player, but he loves horses and prefers this life to the alternatives – starving on the streets or getting the tar knocked out of him in underground boxing matches.
Seasbiscuit, an undersized horse of good breeding but little in the way of talent is the center around which each of these men revolve. Through hard work and care Seabiscuit is transformed from a candidate for the glue factory into a champion, and basking in the reflected glory are Howard, Smith and Pollard.
Seabiscuit picks up speed in the middle stretch, after a slow first hour. Much of the opening of the film feels like a history lesson, disrupting the flow of the story. Not that you could easily derail this story. Ross has played fast and loose with the facts – for example, Pollard was actually a mean drunk, not the nice guy presented here – cobbling together a story that sometimes feels like Chicken Soup for the Equine Soul.
Inspirational messages tumble from everyone’s lips, as though pearls of wisdom flow from their mouths as easily as turning on a facet and watching the water coming pouring out. The script overuses several of these nuggets – ie: “Sometimes when the little guy doesn’t know he’s the little guy he can do big things…” – which only reinforces their corny sentiments.
If the dialogue seems stilted, the racing sequences certainly do not. Ross puts the viewer directly in the action in a series of beautifully realised shots that seem to be taken from the horse’s point of view. In those days racing was a brutal sport where jockeys would punch and shove one another in mid-race. Seabiscuit does an admiral job of recreating the tension and aggression involved in the races with long shots that give the viewer the opportunity to follow the action without confusion.
In the end Seabiscuit is clichéd and predictable, but good work by Bridges, McGuire and Cooper coupled with the movie’s indomitable spirit make it a pleasure that is hard to deny.
What do Elizabeth Taylor and Diane Lane have in common? Besides earning the title World’s Most Desirable Woman (Lane, officially, in 2004, and Taylor, pretty much all the way through the ’60s and ’70s), they’ve both shared the screen with a 1,600-pound leading man.
No, it wasn’t Marlon Brando, it was a horse, of course. Both have starred in movies featuring four-legged cast mates — Taylor most famously in National Velvet, Lane in this weekend’s Secretariat, the story of racing’s most famous thoroughbred.
Secretariat may be the most storied real-life horse to be portrayed in the movies, but he’s not the only one. Remember Phar Lap? The biopic of his life and career — he was the most famous Australian animal athlete of all time, so well known that his heart, preserved at the National Museum of Australia, is their most requested exhibit — was not a hit in North America despite a 100 per cent Rotten Tomatoes rating, but was popular in Australia and New Zealand where the horse is a national treasure.
Faring better at the box office was the inspirational equine movie Seabiscuit, a Depression-era story about a charger that won races and lifted spirits. Dubbed “Three Men and a Horse” by one writer, the story of a jockey (Tobey Maguire), a businessman (Jeff Bridges) and a wise old cowboy (Chris Cooper) connected with audiences and sold a hefty 5.5 million copies on DVD.
Memorable quote? “The horse is too small, the jockey too big, the trainer too old, and I’m too dumb to know the difference.”
More fleet of foot than the racehorse sports movies is the Disney comedy The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit. Based on the novel The Year of the Horse by Eric Hatch, it mixes Mad Men-style advertising executives, a cute kid and a horse named after a stomach pill with stars Kurt Russell, Dean Jones and Dick Van Dyke Show regular, Morey Amsterdam.
Coming around the homestretch are two horse movies starring Hollywood stud Robert Redford. In The Electric Horseman, he’s a washed-up rodeo star “just walkin’” around to save funeral expenses.” He’s a bit on the decrepit side, but Redford did all of his own riding stunts in the film. Redford is back in the saddle in The Horse Whisperer, playing a horse trainer with a special touch. Memorable quote? “Truth is, I help horses with people problems.”