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July 08, 2024

Seabiscuit: A Big Movie That Included the Little Horse

By Bernie Pilarski

By Bernie and Sand Pilarski

This movie was based on the biography of the horse, Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand.

Sand: Good movie, bad title. Maybe "Pivotal Point" or "The Horse Who Was Everyman."

As a horse fanatic for as long as I can remember (as soon as I saw a horse I became a fanatic) I went to the movie expecting to see a fantasy-documentary about a singular horse, who was too little to compete with the big horses, but thumped them all pretty soundly; who was sold for a song to become one of the winningest horses of all time. Seabiscuit, that singular horse, was indeed the centerpiece of the film, but the film is not just about a horse. This film is about a change in the weather of a nation, and of people, and of people brought together by fate to race a singular horse.

Seabiscuit is a redemption film, about the loss of self-respect that we can have, and the drive with which we can re-attain it. Set in the Depression Era, when hunger was a daily companion, and hope lived a few states away, the movie focuses on a tycoon who has lost his son, wife, and interest in life, a free-roving cowboy who knows horses but not civilization, and a boy abandoned by his parents to make his way in the world by any means available. They are drawn to meet and rely on each other in the acquistion and racing of the remarkable horse, Seabiscuit.

Tobey Maguire as Red Pollard the jockey, Jeff Bridges as Charles Howard, the tycoon, and Chris Cooper as the quiet trainer Tom Smith turn in excellent performances. William H. Macy as the obnoxious but irresistible radio announcer "Tick-Tock" McGlaughlin provides humorous continuity through Seabiscuit's career.

Assembly-line mechanization and inflexible standards exclude the miraculous, the wonder-filled, the unusual; but for those who are willing to look beyond a cookie-cutter existence, the sky is the limit. And you reach for the sky by calling forth the giftedness of your comrades. That's the message of this movie; and if there was a purpose to the movie, it would be to call people to look at the unique talents of people around them and give them a chance. To form bonds with other living beings that injury or failure can't break.

I personally know people who lived through the Great Depression, and who survived the Great Migration out of the Dustbowl with only the possessions they could carry. This film is a tribute to their hope in the future. I liked the movie for that reason.

As a horse-person, I found the action scenes realistic enough that I was tensed and leaning in my theater seat trying to compensate as a rider for the horse's moves, and the depiction of Red Pollard's disastrous riding accident was all too realistic. Yet I wanted to know more about how Seabiscuit was calmed from a vicious, unmanageable, attacking animal to a crowd-pleaser, and what efforts Red Pollard made to find his parents again.

Seabiscuit is a beautiful movie, but possibly of little interest to viewers unless they love horses and have a feel for the Depression and what it meant to the nation.

Bernie: The night before I went to see the film Seabiscuit, I had an incident that gave me pause to think about what was really important in life. I work in an auto plant, a sprawling million square foot manufacturing facility that turns out nearly 1600 Toyota cars and trucks every day. Last night, I was picking up parts from the warehouse and delivering them to the shop. After the sun went down (I work second shift), I was driving along outside in the dark. The lights from the plant hit at just the right angle, and I found myself staring at my reflection in the windshield of my tug. I was a bit surprised how much I looked like my father.

Dad had worked for many years in the steels mills of Pittsburgh, first for Curtis Wright, then for J&L Steel. I mused over the fact that even though I have a degree in Psychology, I find that I ended up a blue-collar worker, like Dad, eschewing management positions, like Dad, a dues paying member of a big union, mine the Auto Workers, Dad's the Steel Workers. Only half jokingly, I asked the specter in the windshield what he thought of my plant, and I hoped that he would be pleased with the reputation that I have as a good employee.

I mention this because Dad was of that fabled generation, the one that weathered the depression, worshipped FDR, fought WWII, built a nation that knew no limits on its vision, even putting a man on the moon. They were special, forged in extraordinary times, called to do impossible deeds. Their achievements, as they say, were the stuff of legends. In another time, they would have been immortalized in epic poems and songs sung in public houses by teary eyed old men. Instead, they had the tales told on film. John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck, themselves bigger than life, told the bigger than life tales with the gritty optimism that was characteristic of the artwork turned out by the WPA artists of the '30's.

Dad died last year. He was 83. There was no tragedy in his death -- he had lived a long, productive life, and he would have justifiably held that accomplishment up with pride. Yet I know that there was tremendous sadness in his life, the legacy, I believe, of the very forces that shaped his generation to greatness at the expense of the individual. There were many more that died than were buried -- killed a little bit here by poverty, killed a little there by years of war, then killed a little more by bitterness over lost opportunities.

I went to see Seabiscuit expecting to see a movie about horse racing, an exuberant story of the triumph of the underdog and of the human spirit, if the reviews I read were to be believed. And it was a finely told tale. Based on a true story, it follows the lives of three men, an owner, a trainer, and a jockey, as they overcome personal tragedies and the debilitating circumstances of the Great Depression and turn an unlikely horse into a champion. In the process, they captured the attention of a country that was looking for feel good stories, and Seabiscuit became a symbol of the struggle of the common man.

Truly fine performances were turned in by Jeff Bridges as the owner, Tom Smith as the trainer, and Tobey Maguire as the jockey. And the script was done well enough that, like Ron Howard's Apollo Thirteen, the story held you in suspense even when you knew the outcome. There was also some wonderful camera work in the filming of some of the race scenes, giving the audience a feel for what it must be like for the jockey.

Still, it was not the horse movie I was anticipating. While done well enough, the race scenes were short and could not hold a candle to the stunning match race sequence from Carroll Ballard's 1979 classic The Black Stallion. And while that movie was a story about a relationship with a horse, where you got to know the horse as one of the characters, I never got that sense from Seabiscuit. The horse here was an investment, a symbol, a business, a chance for redemption, but not a character. The surprise character in this film was the Great Depression itself. For the first thirty minutes or so of the film, The Depression knocked the main characters about, putting them on their backs, and then kicking them when they were down.

This was a human story, a tale told about and for a generation that is rapidly passing. It was told in the grandest style of the legends of the early Twentieth Century. The audience at the theatre was made up largely of people over sixty, and they loved it. Maybe it was the way they remembered it, maybe it was the way they needed to remember it.

The movie was a cliche, in the tale and in the telling, and although well executed, it was not strong enough or clever enough to be any more than a cliche. Maybe that's all it wanted to do. Maybe that's the best it could do. Maybe my link with that generation was a little too close that day. I went to the movies to see a story about a horse, and what I got was a ghost story.

Dad, I think, would have liked it.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-07-28
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