Seabiscuit

Seabiscuit has one of the worst trailers I have seen in my life. And because I’ve watched quite some movies that should never have been made, I watched this too, not expecting much. I was wrong.

Let’s get it out of the way. This is the trailer to the 2003 movie Seabiscuit starring Tobey Maguire.

It is terrible. It never seems to end, there’s no real highlight, the music doesn’t fit – maybe it has to do with the music being borrowed from the Medal of Honor video games – and it is just something that makes a movie seem super lame and boring. Still, sit down and watch it, but you need patience.

The Late Star

Seabiscuit

Seabiscuit and George Woolf during a Workout

Seabiscuit is based on the true story of, well, Seabiscuit, who was arguably the world’s most racehorse until American Pharoah (no typo, that’s really the horse’s name) came along and even today, Seabiscuit is a name that horse people use in hushed tones.

Seabiscuit (May 23, 1933 – May 17, 1947) was a champion Thoroughbred racehorse in the United States. A small horse, Seabiscuit had an inauspicious start to his racing career, but became an unlikely champion and a symbol of hope to many Americans during the Great Depression. (Source: Wikipedia)

That’s the short and easy version. Basically, in many ways Seabiscuit and his jockey Red Pollard were the American Dream wrapped up in a clever mixture of underdog success, human drama, animal love, and clever marketing.

Seabiscuit was a small horse that had everything going for it. Sired by a mighty steed, good genes and he was healthy. But apparently, he was lazy. Unusually for horses, Seabiscuit slept quite a lot. If the movie’s to be believed, then he also had a healthy appetite. Generally, nobody put much faith in him.

John M. “Red” Pollard was a boy from Canada who was not only smart, but also had a passion for horses. During the Great Depression, he was employed by Tom Smith.

Seabiscuit

Tom Smith was not good with humans, but he was apparently amazing with horses.

Robert Thomas “Tom” Smith was a horse trainer in a world where horses lost their importance day by day. Machines made them superfluous in many areas of life and so Tom was down on his luck. He was also mostly anti-social, not really being known for his conversational skills. But he was good with horses. He was a relic. Until he met Charles S. Howard and started working for him.

Charles S. Howard made a fortune selling cars. In fact, he was so successful at selling cars, he was known as one of the greatest Buick salesmen ever. But it came at a cost: His son died in a car accident on the family ranch. Looking to overcome the grief, he took to horseracing.

They were lucky that Seabiscuit had a lot of speed in him and that Red Pollard just so happened to get along with a horse known to be incredibly difficult to handle and reputed to be completely untalented at anything a horse should be good at. Such as racing. Or being ridden.

They went on to win races. The perfect underdog team, beating everyone.

It is obvious that this was the angle the 2003 movie starring Tobey Maguire would take. Just as Seabiscuit and his team inspired a nation, the movie was meant to give hope, pride and love back to a world that had been hit by 9/11 two years prior.

Dictated Emotions

Apart from the pacing that the movie never seems to get right, the most awful thing about the film is that it dictates the emotions the audience must feel. There are sound cues aplenty for everything. The plot is predictable down to the exact line of dialog. Especially during the absolutely terrible ending monologue. Whoever wrote that nonsense should go muck out stables for three weeks.

This is one of the current generation of movie’s biggest weaknesses: Producers and executives don’t dare to leave an audience alone with their intellects and emotions anymore. Everything must be dictated. It is only natural to try to tell not just a story, but also purport emotions in a film. This is why movies like Red Dawn – the 1984 version, not the remake – make us all proud to be American even if we’ve never been to the USA. We identify with the underdogs, we root for them, and we are ready to go down with the characters in our movies. We feel with them. We don’t need to be told what to feel, even if 9/11 has just happened.

The ending of Seabiscuit in and of itself is not bad. In fact, it’s really, really awesome. Watch it and turn off the sound. The imagery is all there, the direction is beautifully close to both the horse and his rider while not neglecting the size and distance these horses race. However, if you watch the video below, at three minutes, Tobey Maguire starts speaking, ruining the mood completely. Turn off the sound and watch it again.

For the record, Seabiscuit and Red Pollard did win that race. Hell yeah!

Seabiscuit

The finish line shot of the 1940 Santa Ana Handicap, marking the return of Red Pollard and Seabiscuit

Pacing and Focus

The movie does have its perfect moments, though. Most notably, the parts that spoke the most to me and evoked the strongest emotions, were the very short scenes where both Red Pollard, having recently broken his leg, and Seabiscuit, having recently torn a ligament, recuperate from their injuries that might be ending their careers. Red walks the horse through a lush meadow, telling him stories of his life. Just random anecdotes from his life, pretending that Seabiscuit is not just listening but also replying. These scenes are by far the best in the entire movie. They warrant the sluggish pacing that drags on in the first half of the movie and they make for great drama. Anyone who has ever had any relationship with an animal will automatically empathize with these quiet scenes.

Luckily, they leave the big racing scenes intact, unfortunately oddly misplacing the big race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, an epic one-on-one race that made the already famous horse into a legend.

Seabiscuit

Seabiscuit races against War Admiral, winning the race.

Seabiscuit and War Admiral faced off once on the track but they were hugely popular with racing fans. Seabiscuit being the obvious underdog, War Admiral was heralded to be the perfect horse. He was fast. He was beautiful. He was as perfectly bred as breeding gets. He was the reigning king and the Horse of the Year 1937, having beaten Seabiscuit by 18 votes. Seabiscuit would go on to be the Horse of the Year 1938. So on November 1st, 1938, these two faced off. The match was broadcast live on the radio, drawing in over 40 million listeners and the race track was sold out and then some.

It was a thriller of a race. Not only did Howard’s team train Seabiscuit to start differently from usual, making him give it his all from the start as opposed to his usual tactic of running after the field and then overtaking everyone, leaving them to eat sawdust. This was because Seabiscuit was at his best when he could see his opponent, when he could get up and close with them and not just pull away.

However, War Admiral was a fast starter. If he had gotten away at the start, the race would have been over. So Smith trained Seabiscuit to start fast, instructing jockey George Woolf to let War Admiral catch up during the race. This he did because Seabiscuit would slow down over time if he didn’t see his opponents. As soon as they were level, War Admiral even being ahead for a short period of time, Woolf made Seabiscuit give it his all. Seabiscuit won with four lengths on War Admiral, even though War Admiral broke his record on the track that day.

Horses Are Not Dogs

Here’s something few people don’t consciously know about horses: They’re not dogs. They don’t necessarily react to their name being called. They don’t care much for the emotions of humans or their lives. They don’t come running up to you when you show up, they don’t adore you like a dog do and they’re sometimes quite disloyal. That said, they’re wonderful creatures and they can give back quite a bit to humans. Working with horses is great. Sitting on horseback is amazing, but even just sitting with a horse while it’s munching its hay and you tell it stories has a cathartic effect and is generally a very intimate ordeal. Because the friendship between human and horse is quite a weird one. It’s less a master/animal relationship but more a relationship of partners.

In a movie, it’s seemingly impossible to convey this. Horses are degraded to dogs, loyal sidekicks to humans who yearn for human approval and jump through hoops for them. Real horses are not like that. They don’t wait for humans to give them approval. They tell humans pretty much exactly what they think and want. And they’re willing to put up a fight for what they want.

Seabiscuit the movie doesn’t do that as one of the very few movies. The horse is actually a horse. He has his friends and moods, his habits and his preferences. It’s very refreshing to see how Hollywood can pull off realistic animals and their relationship with humans without making everything into a dog.

All in all, Seabiscuit manages to inspire and to convey the love humans have for horses. It also made me want to go to the stables right now and pet my horse friends and feed them absurd amounts of carrots. It’s definitely worth watching for people who care about horses and also for people wanting to get a good picture of how horses live with humans. And, of course, if you’re after a great underdog movie, Seabiscuit is of course just the thing for you.

About Dom

Possessing nigh-encyclopaedic knowledge when it comes to comic books and movies, Dom is one of the co-founders of the Uncanny Book-Club. He also enjoys movies, and going to the cinema.

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