Hollywood has always loved an underdog. There's just something intuitively 'feel good' about conquering adversity. Director Gary Ross’ Seabiscuit (2003) - based on Laura Hillenbrand’s novel – is a rather rousing tribute to just such a four-legged victor and his rider thriving on adversity to become worldwide champions and celebrities. Immediately following the real Seabiscuit’s victorious Santa Anita race, author B. K. Beckwith published Seabiscuit: The Saga of a Great Champion. In 1949 the horse’s exploits were further immortalized on celluloid in the Shirley Temple classic The Story of Seabiscuit. But it was Ralph Moody’s 1963 book Come On Seabiscuit that served as the inspiration for Laura Hillenbrand 2001 novel, Seabiscuit: An American Legend on which this film is based.
The real life story of this legendary animal and its ability to rally a Depression-worn nation to its feet is worth noting. Seabiscuit began life as a knobby-kneed lazy pony on Claiborne Farm where he was trained by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons (Shay Duffin in the film). The horse was frequently subjected to smaller, more grueling races where he invariably finished dead last. In truth, there was nothing in Seabiscuit’s history to warrant the success that was to follow. After a few intense, though lackluster seasons, the horse was sold to automobile entrepreneur Charles S. Howard (Jeff Bridges in the film) for $8,000. Something of a would-be maverick, Howard’s faith in the future was unshakeable.
Assigned to trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) for conditioning, Seabiscuit gradually began to respond, particularly after Smith paired him with Canadian jockey, Red Pollard (Toby McGuire). The team won Detroit’s prestigious Governor’s Handicap and the Scarsdale Handicap in the same year. Howard and Smith next shipped the horse to California where his last two races of the year set a time only two fifths of a second off the world record. By 1937, the men turned their attentions to California's most prestigious horse race. Although Seabiscuit managed to win the qualifying meet, he was bumped at the start of the actual competition, finishing an abysmal fifth.
In the film, Seabiscuit’s failure is attributed to Pollard’s error and his loss of sight in one eye after a boxing match. In actuality, Pollard lost his sight in a riding accident. It is highly unlikely this impacted his ability to command the horse during the race as he had done so many times before under the same personal handicap. Despite the loss, Seabiscuit had already become the darling favorite amongst Californian racing fans. After winning three subsequent races in short order, Howard relocated the horse to the Eastern racing circuit where Seabiscuit’s victories continued unabated. Of the 15 races entered, Seabiscuit rode to victory in 11 – the premiere money-maker of 1937. On the west coast, he was a fanatical favorite on radio, in newsreels and in the stands.
A businessman at heart, Howard quickly cashed in on this obsession with a complete line of merchandise. However, a tragic accident involving Pollard forced Howard to recast Seabiscuit’s rider with George Woolf (Gary Stevens), in a race that now seems doomed from the start – one that was eventually lost. Throughout 1937 and 1938 it was rumored that Seabiscuit would challenge the reigning champion, War Admiral. For one reason or another, the meet never occurred and Pollard – who had attempted a comeback aboard another horse – suffered yet another setback when his leg was shattered during a training session.
A match race against Ligaroti – a prized pony belonging to singer Bing Crosby proved victorious, but of the three additional outings that same year, Seabiscuit won only one. Then, in November of 1938, the inevitable match between Seabiscuit and War Admiral at Pimlico was set. Admiral was decidedly the betting favorite. But Seabiscuit had won the heart of the crowd and, in an unprecedented recovery, beat the established champion by four clear lengths. He was voted 1938’s Horse of the Year. Unfortunately, during a qualifying meet, Seabiscuit ruptured a suspensor ligament in his front left leg. The recovery period for the horse coincided with Red Pollard’s own mending and together, the two began to re-bond on the race course. Initially plagued by nightmares from his riding accident, Pollard eventually gained the confidence required to sit on a horse again.
Howard was adverse to allow Pollard his ride. But the jockey’s persistence eventually won the entrepreneur over. After all, the original team of Pollard and Seabiscuit made for great copy in the newspapers. After an unremarkable start, rider and horse conquered the San Antonio Handicap and then, in an unfathomable feat Seabiscuit won the prestigious Santa Anita Handicap and its $121,000 grand prize; a glorious finale to a truly remarkable career. The following year, Howard announced Seabiscuit’s retirement from professional racing to a cushy stall at Ridgewood Ranch in California where he would eventually sire 108 foals – none as successful as he had been on the racing circuit. Seven years later, Seabiscuit died, his burial kept in secret by all except the immediate Howard family. However, on June 23, 2007 a statue was erected at Ridgewood in honor of the horse that nobody had initially wanted.
The film exacts its usual pound or two of artistic license on the historical record, condensing and/or omitting less dramatic portions and occasionally fabricating history to suit its own end. Interestingly enough, the final climactic race is something of a cinematic let down despite Seabiscuit’s victory – somehow unfulfilled in its celebratory summation of this great racer’s career. Ross’ direction and screenplay are solid, as are the performances from all concerned. Yet, the love affair between man and his ride is somewhat relegated to secondary status amidst a seemingly endless montage of racing footage and the well-constructed triage of humans – Howard, Pollard and Smith – who inspire and feed off one another’s accomplishments. In the final analysis, Seabiscuit is a beautifully crafted exercise in the re-creation of a bygone era. As pure melodrama however, it tends to leave something to be desired.
Universal's re-issue of Seabiscuit on Blu-ray as part of their 100th anniversary perfectly captures John Schwartzman's evocative cinematography. Colors are rich and detailed. Flesh tones are very nicely rendered. Contrast levels are bang on with deep blacks and very clean, crisp whites. Fine details are evident throughout, even during the darkest scenes. Film grain looks very natural and the overall image is smooth and satisfying. The DTS audio is appropriately aggressive with superior spatial spread. Extras include a brief featurette on the making of the film as well as authentic newsreel footage of Seabiscuit’s victories immortalized on celluloid. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)