(Gary Ross, USA, 2003)


This bizarre movie made me realise with a jolt that there are two very distinct kinds of horse operas – those fashioned for women and those designed for men.

The woman's horse movie has never changed. It follows the model of National Velvet (1944), usually centred on a young girl's dream of freedom and her family life.

But the modern man's horse movie is no longer a good, old-fashioned Western. It is a full-out weepie of male redemption snatched from the historic jaws of defeat.

The Horse Whisperer (1998) was, in this regard, only a warm-up for Seabiscuit, a wild success in America. This new film spins a humble, real-life story into an epic mosaic of loss and triumph.

Seabiscuit packs a quadruple whammy. First there is Seabiscuit the horse, "trained to lose" and abused in his childhood. Then there is the horse's owner, Charles (Jeff Bridges, largely reprising the type of role he played in Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream [1988]) – an entrepreneur who has lost his fortune and his winning touch.

Then there's the melancholic trainer, Tom (Chris Cooper), remnant of a simpler time. Then the wild, young rider, Johnny (Tobey Maguire), abandoned by his parents when they hit hard times (oddly, they disappear from his life and from this film altogether after the anguished farewell). And last but not least, the nation of America itself, struggling with the blow delivered by the Great Depression.

Can a horse race bring all four entities back to the top? It is on this feel-good premise that writer-director Gary Ross has calculated his blockbuster. Of one thing he seems absolutely certain: no women, beyond one or two very marginal figures, are going to be allowed into this orgy of comebacks and raised spirits. It is a spectacle for men only.

For once, the poster image perfectly encapsulates the movie: a man and his horse form the perfect, loving couple, the height of mutual empathy, caring and sensitivity.

For much of its long (129 minute), slow running time, I found Seabiscuit frankly unbearable. Ross proudly takes what is most odious from the cinema of Steven Spielberg and creates his own sickly sentimental universe. Every line, every gesture, is heightened as if in the process of being memorialised for the ages. Golden light suffuses landscapes and faces, orchestral music swells at every possible occasion, the camera moves in at a low angle to desperately underline the weight and significance of events.

And let's not forget the film's direst element: a Ken Burns-style documentary, mingling archival stills and a solemn, educational voice-over narration, which is interjected at regular intervals throughout the story. Rarely has the spectacle of American self-importance been writ so large as here.

Yet, for all that, Seabiscuit is an event-movie which has a way of ensnaring even the most jaded, cynical viewer. Perhaps this has something to do with the effort that Ross has put into the racing scenes. By devising a plot that demands of Seabiscuit that he "give the eyeball" to his equestrian competition before summoning up that final sprint, the races actually become compelling drama.

And let's not forget the populist hook. Seabiscuit, you see, is "the people's horse". Standing as he does for the hopes and dreams of an entire (male) nation, he can draw a crowd of ordinary folk to the racetrack like no other nag. So this is a cue for Charles to stride across sports stadiums demanding that space be made available not just for elite spectators but also Seabiscuit's adoring mass public.

Ross here parlays the great, time-honoured Hollywood trick known in the trade as audience-product bonding. It is not enough to simply have a stirring climax or a happy ending. The assembled cinema audience likes to see itself reflected on the screen. Therefore, the sight of a horde of ordinary people going ape over Seabiscuit's last stand has a good chance of whipping up a like frenzy in the multiplex.

Judging by Seabiscuit, this old, manipulative trick still works wonders.

© Adrian Martin November 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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