“The Story of Seabiscuit” (1949) and “Seabiscuit” (2003) raise the question on whether or not it is better to let some time pass before making a movie about an actual historical figure or event. Exploiting the excitement of the moment is irresistible, but we inevitably learn more, and perhaps even feel more, when time matures our perspective.
The historical figure in this case is the champion 20th century thoroughbred Seabiscuit, and the event is the match race with War Admiral, and the Santa Anita Handicap…and the Great Depression.
This is our entry into Page’s Horseathon hosted by My Love of Old Hollywood. Have a look at her blog for the other entries.
This is also the second part of our series on racehorses in the movies, please see Monday’s post on “Secretariat” (2010) and “Casey’s Shadow” (1978).
The two movies on Monday gave us a chance to consider a film made during its era (1970s) and a film made in 2010 about the 1970s. The past, we noted, is always cleaned up a bit, but in our nostalgic look back we see more than we did then, and learn more.
The soft colors of this film are wiped away when we find ourselves plunked down for the great match race between War Admiral and Seabiscuit. We are shown actual newsreel footage of the exciting race.
But unless one knows the history and the significance of the event, then watching this film may do nothing to stimulate either the imagination or appreciation for the magnitude of the moment.
This is where “Seabiscuit” (2003) shows its brilliance.
Based on the excellent book by Laura Hillenbrand, “Seabiscuit: An American Legend” (NY: Ballantine Books 2002), the film is both written and directed by Gary Ross. Wisely, he ties together scenes in the movie with narration by historian David McCullough, whose voice we may instantly recognize from other documentaries and so bestowing on this film from its opening moments the imprimatur of legitimacy. We are given to understand that this story is important and has value, and that we are capable of understanding it even if we know nothing of horses.
Grandpa pulls us on his lap and explains that candy cost a penny. He explains that there was no television. We have to understand these things first before he gets into his tale. Now, maybe he embellishes a little bit, but certainly through his telling we can hear and see and smell the details of his story about sneaking into the circus tent (or what have you).
Sometimes the best way to tell a story is to not assume your audience will appreciate it or understand it -- but help them to do so. It doesn’t necessarily talk down to them. If done the right way, it’s just holding their hand.
Handholding can be very comforting.
I love William H. Macy’s line, “I can take one comeback, but this is ridiculous. Who’s next, Lazarus?”
“Casey’s Shadow” misses the glorious and unabashed sentiment of “Seabiscuit” (2003), and “Secretariat” fails to really take the audience by the hand to appreciate the era of the early 1970s as well as “Seabiscuit” does with the 1930s. “The Story of Seabiscuit” (1949) has really only its archival footage of the great horse to recommend it.
I know I can accept it at face value, and not just because of this movie.
I remember the horse Secretariat and the huge thrill we got watching him win each race, one by one, of the Triple Crown. Anyone who recalls that will understand the Depression audiences who hunkered by their radios to listen to Seabiscuit tear down the back stretch.
Largely because of that memory, I’ll be watching the Belmont Stakes next Saturday to see if I’ll Have Another will be the first horse in 34 years to take the Triple Crown.
Please have a look at the other blogs participating in the Horesathon sponsored by My Love of Old Hollywood.