Seabiscuit


Directed by: Gary Ross
Written by:Gary Ross
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Chris Cooper, Jeff Bridges, William H. Macy, Gary Stevens
Released: November 13, 2003
Grade: A-

It is no coincidence that this film is being released the week after the Melbourne Cup.  After debuting to strong reviews in the States last July, Seabiscuit has been held up in Australia waiting for this apt time of the year.  You probably won’t have heard of the horse before but in 1938, Seabiscuit occupied more newspaper column inches in America than any other living creature.  He is one of the greatest racehorses ever to compete.  In the 30s, Australia had Phar Lap but America had Seabiscuit.

Why was the “Biscuit” so popular?  He was the ultimate underdog.  He was bought by the wealthy Charles Howard from a disgruntled owner for just $7,500.  Seabiscuit had raced many times previously but never showed any talent or consistency.  It was trainer Tom Smith who selected the horse for Howard and it was Smith who taught the Seabiscuit “how to be a horse again”.  Initially, the horse was a difficult proposition to ride but in another masterstroke Smith came across a tall jockey by the name of Red Pollard who immediately developed a bond with the animal.

From there, you only need look in the record books.  The ultimate underdog won stakes race after stakes race and was soon acknowledged as the best horse on the West Coast.  Every time he ran, thousands of fans flocked to the track just to hail the mighty hero.  At the horse’s peak, an estimated 40,000 turned out just to watch a training run.  Dominating on America’s East Coast was horse called War Admiral.  It had won the lucrative “Triple Crown” and Howard wanted a match-race between the two to settle the growing debate of who was best.  After several failed attempts to stage the race, the two meet one on one in the afternoon of November 1, 1938.  It was built as “the race of the century”.

The story of Seabiscuit had generally faded away until author Laura Hillenbrand researched the great animal and wrote a novel in 2001.  It won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award.  Having read it, I say it’s a beautifully touching tribute.  If you like the movie, you’ll love reading the book.  There is so much that couldn’t be squeezed into the film and if a tear comes to your eye watching in on screen, you can expect an ever deeper response from the novel.

Jeff Brides (The Big Lebowski) plays Charles Howard, Chris Cooper (Adaptation) plays Tom Smith, and Tobey Maguire (Spiderman) plays Red Pollard.  All three give the finest performances.  They are likeable people and the audience will naturally cheer for them.  The director of the film is Gary Ross who made one of the best films of 1998, Pleasantville (which also starred Maguire).  There is a lot to this story and in trying to condense it, Ross has created a long movie which does feel rushed.  Could more have been cut?  I’m not sure.  Ross’s best work is on show during the key horse races.  The camera hovers just inches from the large beasts and you will never be closer to see them in action.

Creating a large scale movie set in the 1930s created natural headaches.  Don’t ask me where they got them but there are an inordinate number of extras in the background during the scenes shot at the track.  They are all immaculately dressed and it had to have been the job of a lifetime for two-time Academy Award nominated costumer Judianna Makovsky.  She will surely get a third nom this year.  The sets are also fantastic and I’d love to know where they found so many antique cars.

It’s a touch corny but the heart of the story is never lost.  If I didn’t know it actually happened then perhaps I’d be critical of an unrealistic screenplay.  But this really did happen and the tale of Seabiscuit, Charles Howard, Tom Smith and Red Pollard can now be watched for decades to come.  It’s a modern day fairytale.