Stephen Ives’ “Seabiscuit,” a historical review of the exploits of the champion racehorse, reveals a great deal about the society cheering for the horse. Solidly made in the Ken Burns style that has characterized most non-fiction work on PBS’ “American Experience,” saga is so rich in storytelling vigor and colorful characters it would require a second viewing to determine how helmer Ives and his team managed to pack so much information in less than an hour. Touching on several facets of Americana, pic has a well-earned slot as the opener of latest edition of the fast-growing, smartly-programmed Full Frame docu fest, and should be essential viewing on its premiere April 21 airdate. Moreover, in video, this slice of American history is a keeper.
A clip from the first Hollywood adaptation of Seabiscuit’s triumph, “The Story of Seabiscuit,” serves to indicate what powerful sway this underdog horse story held with Americans during the depths of the Depression — still strong a decade later, in 1949, when the movie (starring Shirley Temple and Barry Fitzgerald) was released — and how it continues, anticipating the upcoming “Seabiscuit,” starring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper.
The view that the ungainly looking equine, and his equally unlikely cadre of human supporters, was a symbol of American possibility forms the basis of Laura Hillenbrand’s book on Seabiscuit, which in turn is the foundation for Ives’ film (as well as the upcoming feature). Over the distance of years, the symbolism may seem to be a stretch, but the film — with Scott Glenn narrating with big-shouldered style — convincingly sells the idea.
Even though he was a direct descendant of the great Man O’ War, Seabiscuit in 1936 was a consistent loser and, judging by the plentiful newsreel footage that provides pic with much of its visual verve, a pretty forlorn, awkward creature. Vet trainer Tom Smith reportedly saw “the face of confidence” that nobody else did, and urged owner Charles Howard to buy him for $8,000. Adding immensely to the tale is hard-luck jockey John “Red” Pollard, whose knowledge of down-and-out horses helped him bond with Seabiscuit.
Hillenbrand’s dominant presence as an on-screen commentator (as well as the vibrant observations of sportswriter Gene Smith and sports broadcaster Jack Whitaker) bring alive the country’s desperate mood, its hunger for a proletarian hero, the near-fanatical popularity of racetrack betting, the metaphoric power of sports, and the cultural divide between West Coast (particularly at Santa Anita, where Seabiscuit first became a celebrity) and East Coast (where snobby bluebloods preferred the aristocratic War Admiral).
What is most striking in this account of Seabiscuit’s incredible, odds-bucking string of victories, highlighted by a stunning match race against War Admiral and a final race in 1940 at Santa Anita (both of which are shown nearly intact in fine-looking footage) is how the animal’s rise and setbacks are almost exactly matched by those of his handlers, especially Pollard. The jockey’s own personal victory is so “Hollywood” in flavor and outcome it’s amazing the studios waited 10 years to do a bigscreen version.