Thursday, June 4, 2009

Movie v. Book - Seabiscuit

Seabiscuit (2003)
Dir: Gary Ross
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper

I think it's better to break a man's leg than his heart. 
I was crippled for the rest of my life. I got better. He made me better. Hell, you made me better.
You know everyone thinks we got 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 fixed each other, too.

And the cheesey pièce de résistance:

You don't throw away a whole life just 'cause it's banged up a little.

The complex story of the Thoroughbred racehorse Seabiscuit and his 'connections' as they are called in racing, and Laura Hillenbrand's good book, did not deserve the thin, scared treatment they receive in this shiny, shallow film. I have no objection to a filmmaker changing a book -they are two very different mediums, they need to change them. But the changes here served not to streamline and strengthen the story for a visual media with a briefer audience relationship, but to water down the material beyond any but purely visual enjoyment. For the movie is beautiful. It's just the writing that kills.

The story is this: in the early 20th century, Charles Howard becomes one of California's first car salesmen and a wealthy man, but the death of his son destroys his marriage and his certainty about the world. He is wandering, looking for new distractions, when he remarries and begins to dabble in horse racing. He finds an oddball old cowboy named Tom Smith, who finds him a soured racehorse called Seabiscuit, and they end up hiring a jockey named Red Pollard to pilot him. And the horse, a reject from the stables of one of America's finest racehorse trainers, begins to win. And wins a match race against the Triple Crown winner War Admiral. And breaks down in his quest for the richest horse race on earth, Santa Anita Park's $100,000 stakes race. And stages a comeback alongside his jockey, also badly injured in a riding accident.

A compelling story, which Hillenbrand amps up by also including the story of Depression-era America, and how Seabiscuit's rags-to-riches story became a popular tale across the ragged country. The filmmakers seem to have perceived it as if they were aliens dimly aware that humans find abused animals and heartwarming tales of heroics appealing, but lacking in any sense of subtlety or lightness. The hamhandedness with which the major conflicts are handled is astounding.

In the film, a foal is loaded into a truck while his mother whinnies and races the fence line in distress. In reality, Seabiscuit was a yearling, six months past weaning, when he was shipped to the legendary trainer 'Sunny' Jim Fitzsimmons's stables at Aqueduct to begin training as a racehorse.

In film and reality, the colt's sire, Hard Tack, was famous as a rogue, that rare horse who is deliberately dangerous to humans, and his offspring were treated with caution. But in reality, the reasons Seabiscuit was trained and raced so hard by Fitzsimmons were more complicated than that they simply hated his father. The colt, though not aggressive like Hard Tack, had a similarly pugnacious personality; he simply wouldn't play ball; lazing around the track instead of working hard. Years later, Tom Smith would figure him out; Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons never did. He apparently had jockeys use the whip liberally - which was unusual for him - to try to persuade the big lug to run faster. Seabiscuit did have a hard time as a young racehorse; he was raced a lot, he was raced hard, and he was used pretty hard. This in no way excuses the line given to Red Pollard when he tells another jockey not to use the whip because 'they hit him there when he was a baby.'
War Admiral, portrayed almost villainously in the film as a huge and pampered favorite, was actually a smaller horse (15'2 hands, not 18.)

And here I throw up my hands and give up. With one more note - the score was so over the top, so smary, so rousing and insistent, that the filmmaker should have been jailed for it. Give the audience a little room to decide when the break out the hankies, for god's sake.

Tobey Maguire was good as Red Pollard, and Chris Cooper as Tom Smith. I generally like William H. Macy, but the invention of Tick Tock McGlaughlin was misguided.

Real jockey Gary Stevens played George Woolf in the film. Stevens, who's won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, the Santa Anita Derby and the Breeders' Cup, retired in 2005.

Gary Stevens' website with movie information
IMDB - Seabiscuit
Universal trailer
The actual 1938 match race on YouTube
The 1940 Santa Anita Handicap on YouTube
Photo of War Admiral
Photo of Seabiscuit
Santa Anita Park website

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