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Seabiscuit Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 April 2007

ImageSeabiscuit is the Rocky of horseracing movies. This small colt was deemed too small and too unskilled to make it in the big time world of thoroughbred horse racing, so he spent his days in the minor leagues, running and usually losing against mediocre competition and he ran up an unimpressive string of losses. No one wanted him.

At the same time as Seabiscuit was losing races at bush league tracks around the country, young jockey Red Pollard, who was sent to live with foster parents because his real parents could not afford to raise him thanks to the great depression, was grinding out money at these same minor league tracks, supplementing his income by trying to be a boxer. Red was too big to be a jockey and too small to be a boxer. Tobey Maguire plays the part of Red Pollard in the film and his five foot six; 140-pound frame was the perfect fit for the part. Jockeys need to be less than 120 pounds so weight was always an issue for Pollard. He would have to stave himself, robbing him of his strength and muscle tone, leaving him an angry, sad shell of a young man.

Meanwhile, a bicycle mechanic by the name of Charles Howard, played by Jeff Bridges was spending his days repairing bicycles but was dreaming of a better life. He began learning how to fix cars and before he knew it, the inner entrepreneurial spirit and easy going salesman in Howard sprang forth and he became the number one Buick dealer on the west coast. Charles Howard became one of the richest men in California. He was riding high on life and as rich men with lots of free time he started looking for a hobby and found it in horse racing. After the untimely death of his wife and son, this rich man who seemingly had it all was feeling as empty and lost as the rest of the country.

The final piece of the Seabiscuit puzzle is horse trainer Tom Smith, played by Chris Cooper. Smith was a very simple man who didn’t speak much but had a special connection with horses. Know as the man who inspired “The Horse Whisperer”, Tom Smith was the first person to see the potential in Seabiscuit and yet there were times when even he would watch this banged up little horse zig-zag around the track and think that Seabiscuit might be a lost cause. But he never truly gave up on him.
The film is the real life story of how these three men came together and found a little diamond in the rough, in the form of a short, ugly horse that was lazy, awnry and deemed by most a big loser. What they found when they took the time to really find out what this horse was made of was that he had the biggest heart of any horse they had ever seen. When I say biggest heart, I of course mean the most tenacity and will to win. They took this over-the-hill-horse and turned him into the biggest sports star in the world. Millions of fans took the day off work and tuned in to hear the famous match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. Film reels of the races building up to this monumental race were shown as news briefs before feature films at movie theaters around the country. There was no Internet and no ESPN, but the buzz about this little horse was huge. Golf has Tiger Woods and Jack Nicolas, boxing has Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson and horse racing has Secretariat and Seabiscuit. This little horse became a superstar.

Where Seabiscuit and Rocky differ is in the authenticity in the performance of the star athletes. In Rocky, as good of a film as it is, many of the punches were obviously pulled, yet in Seabiscuit, real jockeys were hired to run real races. Legendary horseracing Hall of Fame member and one of the winningest jockeys of all time Chris McCarron, was hired as a consultant to oversee all of the racing shots and also to teach Tobey Maguire how to train and ride real race horses. McCarron makes an appearance in the film as the jockey Charley Kurtsinger who rode War Admiral in the famed match race that is one of the highlights of the film.

Another hall of fame jockey, Gary Stevens was hired to not only consult, but to actually be one of the supporting actors in the film. Gary has a reputation in the world of horse racing as not only being one of the best jockeys to ever straddle a horse, but also as being a fierce competitor with a cocky attitude. He plays George Wolf, known as “the Iceman”, the most dominant jockey of that era and the part was a spectacular fit for Stevens. As this five-foot-two tall man steps out of his limo at the Aqua Caliente track in Tijuana, Mexico, with his crème colored suit and patent leather shoes, he has the swagger of a young rich playboy and the presence of a big shot Mafioso, despite his diminutive size. Wolf was a small man who was larger than life but deep down had a heart of gold, and Stevens portrays this man brilliantly. He is a complete natural in front of the camera. In the film, when Charles Howard asks George Wolf if he thinks he should be allowed to let his injured jockey Red Pollard race despite a previous injury to his leg, Stevens as Wolf responds “It’s better to break a man’s leg than his heart.” I thought to myself, wow, not only can this guy race horses, but also he sure as hell can act. This flair for being on camera has landed Stevens a seat as a commentator on the horseracing network TVG.

When this film came out, sales of Laura Hillenbrand’s book Seabuscuit, which this film is based on, raced up the best-seller lists and there were a whole slew of documentaries about this rags-to-ritches story on TV. Several of these documentaries are included on the disc as well as a full “making of” documentary and a very well done “HBO: First Look”. My only gripe with the supplemental footage is the fact that there are only so many times you can hear director Gary Ross and the cast talk about how these three men, Charles Howard, Red Pollard and Tom Smith, who were underdogs in life, came together and brought this little rust colored underdog of a horse to the heights of the horse racing world. When directors and actors do a lot of press for a film and get asked the same questions over and over, their answers start to sound the same. There are so many instances of the actors, directors and producers giving these same pat answers that I felt there were probably a few too many interview features on the disc, but what makes the bonus features the coolest is the fact that they show the actual footage of the War Admiral vs. Seabiscuit match race. To see how well the film depicts this real life event was a neat treat.

The director commentary offers a special little treat for students of filmmaking. Steven Soderbergh sits down and chimes in with his thoughts on the film along with Gary Ross. The film lingo they use will go over many layman’s head as they use terms such as “the protagonist,” “sub-text,” “blocking shots” ad nausea. Of course, anyone who is into a film or the film making process enough will know what they are talking about, but casual fans are probably going turn the commentary off after a few minutes of this self-indulgent tech talk.

Being a period piece set in the late 1920s and early 1930s just after the great depression, the costumes and sets are extremely authentic, however director Gary Ross smartly didn’t try to over stylize the film by adding artificial sepia tone coloring or film grain to the movie. The result is a spectacular looking film with one of the cleanest transfers to HD DVD I have seen to date. The shots that stand out as the best demo scenes are far and away the races themselves. Cameras mounted on the jockeys as well as cameras mounted on trucks that followed the action give you the sense of actually being in the races. Horse racing is far and away the most dangerous organized sporting event and the gritty action in high-def on this HD DVD is mind blowing.

Seabiscuit is emotionally touching, extremely well acted and makes us realize that just because someone hasn’t had the best upbringing, doesn’t mean they aren’t worth something. Sometimes all someone needs is to be given a chance and some support and you would be amazed at what they can accomplish. You will be amazed at how great this HD DVD looks too.

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