With the kids out of school and shuttered inside with the (ugh!) parents for weeks now, this is the perfect time to fill some of those increasingly empty hours with films that not only help pass the time, but both inform and entertain.
By now you’ve probably exhausted all the feature film franchises: Shrek is shredding your patience and Fast and Furious seems slow and deliberate.
Sports are virtually gone and what’s left is, well, virtual on some sites. For the equine addict, there’s little racing and even less equine sport. But you can still saddle up!
Anyone who has ever been to a barn knows that horses are often about other companion critters—cats, dogs, the occasional goat. So, here is a selection of films about horses (and their four-legged friends) you and the kids may have missed.
Ok, let’s roll ‘em!
FOR YOU AND THE KIDS:
(Rated G, MGM Home Entertainment, 1944)
This is the foundational film about young girls and their love of horses. Featuring a precocious Elizabeth Taylor as 12-year-old Velvet Brown in her breakout performance, a young Mickey Rooney as former jockey Mike “Mi” Taylor—a bigger star at the time than Taylor—and a raffle-won horse named “The Pie,” Velvet hopes to race in England’s Grand National steeplechase race.
Filmed in 1944 in costly, rarely used Technicolor and based on a 1935 novel of the same name by Enig Bagwold, the film has some adult themes, but bends gender norms in an apolitical, inspiring way. Beautifully “staged” in the English countryside of Sussex, though largely filmed in Pebble Beach CA, “National Velvet” was selected in 2003 for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron
(Rated G, DreamWorks, 2002)
From the wonderful folks at DreamWorks, this animated film is to horses what Bambi was to deer, so there is a tense moment in the film, later happily resolved. The film was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Animated Film.
Spirit opens with a Bald Eagle gliding through familiar animated iconic—and now welcome—images of the American West: the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River, Monument Valley, the Arches of Utah, the cedar and hemlock forests of Washington state and Montana and, of course, bison herds.
Spirit is the story of a Mustang stallion living in the American West, voiced by Matt Damon. He grows to become the leader of his herd. He is captured by a cavalry regiment led by a man known as The Colonel during the American Indian Wars. He is later freed by Little Creek, a member of the Lakota tribe. Unwilling to be ridden, Spirit becomes tamer when he meets and falls in horse-love with Rain.
Of course, the path of horse-love will not be smooth as The Colonel and his cavalry return, but all will end well for Little Creek, the horse he names “Spirit Who Could Not Be Broken,” and Rain.
Considered a failure by DreamWorks head, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the film has since garnered a large cult following. Given its release in 2002, its effects can seem dated, but its story is timeless and very kid-friendly.
A BIT OUTSIDE THE BARN:
(Rated PG for the perilous action and a brief but difficult theme, Pixar, 2009)
This Pixar masterpiece is the first animated film that was seriously considered a contender for a Best Picture Academy Award nomination. It settled instead for a 2010 Best Animated Feature Film Oscar among a raft of other awards.
Up is the story of curmudgeonly 70-something Carl Fredricksen, voiced by the ever-curmudgeonly Edward Asner (Mary Tyler Moore show), in his journey from early life to marriage to threatened elder eviction and a life-dreamed trip to South America’s Paradise Falls with boy Wilderness Scout stowaway Russell—“Adventure is out there!”
And it is.
Along the way, the pair encounters a pack of ferocious dogs, a famous explorer turned threatening recluse and a…very odd bird.
One word: “Squirrel!”
(Rated G, MGM Home Entertainment, 1943)
Another oldie-but-greatie. This 1943 masterstroke stars Roddy McDowall, the great character actor Donald Crisp and, yes, Elizabeth Taylor, getting only third billing.
But, let’s face it, the real star is the original Lassie, actually a male Rough Collie named Pal (don’t tell the kids).
Based on the novel by Eric Knight, the film is set in Yorkshire during World War I, though it actually was filmed near San Bernadino, CA. The impoverished parents (Crisp and Elsa Lanchester) of Joe Carraclough are forced to sell their son’s beloved dog to a local Duke (Nigel Bruce).
Though well-treated by the Duke and his granddaughter Priscilla (Taylor), Lassie longs to return to Joe and repeatedly escapes. The final escape is much longer and the journey more difficult. It involves a kindhearted old farming couple, a helpful handyman (the beloved Edmund Gwenn, Santa Claus in the original Miracle on 34th Street) and, of course, a couple of villains.
This is another film that has been included in Library of Congress’ National Film registry.
A bit of trivia: the hypen in the title refers to Lassie in the inverted adjectival, as a “come-home dog.”
FOR YOU AND YOUR HORSE-LOVING TEEN OR TWEEN
(Rated PG-13, DreamWorks, 2011)
This year’s success of the film 1917 has brought World War I back into focus. Forgotten by many people, horses were the vehicles of cavalry in war as recently as World War II.
Steven Spielberg produced and directed this uplifting story of the friendship between a horse named Joey and his young trainer, Albert. The film stars Jeremy Irvine and Emily Watson, and is based on the 2011 Broadway Tony Award-winning Best Play of the same name.
Separated by the harrowing events of World War I, when even horses were sold and conscripted into military service, Joey goes on a journey that takes him to both sides of the warring lines, oddly touching everyone he meets.
Nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, War Horse is Lassie Come Home for horses and horse lovers, an inspiring story of hope in a time of seeming hopelessness.
(Rated PG-13, Universal Pictures, more, 2003)
If you see only one film about horseracing, fan or not, make this that film.
The current time calls to mind the America of the 1930s and The Great Depression. Just as we seek inspiration now, ordinary Americans sought it then as well. They found that inspiration in an undersized, underdog horse named Seabiscuit, an unaccomplished grandson of the great Man o’ War.
The brilliance of the film is in its capturing of the era as well as the story of a horse and the few people who came together around him. An inspired decision was to have the recreated historical elements voiced by eminent historical author David McCullough.
The film was written and directed by Gary Ross and inspired by the equally wonderful book Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand.
Seabiscuit stars Jeff Bridges as the owner Charles Howard seeking to overcome a personal tragedy; Chris Cooper as the horse-whispering trainer Tom Smith seeking redemption and a pre-Spiderman Tobey McGuire as the young jockey John “Red” Pollard seeking to overcome a difficult youth. Elizabeth Banks appears in her first serious role as Howard’s wife (fans may recall she would reunite later with Ross as Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games, the first film in the trilogy).
Santa Anita Park is also one of the “heroes” of the film, portrayed as homage to California and to racing in contrast with its recent controversial status.
And, since every hero like Seabiscuit needs an anti-hero, one appears in the form of War Admiral, a son of Man o’ War and the fourth winner of The Triple Crown in 1937.
There are two other parts of note. William H. Macy has a fun turn as track announcer Tick Tock McGlaughlin. Real-life Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, at the time between retirements from racing, plays—and bears an uncanny physical resemblance to—Canadian and fellow Hall of Fame jockey George “The Iceman” Woolf. An annual award in his name still is given by The Jockey Guild.
The film owes much to the wonderful cinematography of John Schwartzman. He exquisitely paints the gleaming golden West of California contrasted with the duller grays of the East. He took home the Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work.
Seabiscuit was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 2004 including Best Picture.
(Rated PG, Disney, 2010)
You can’t mention racehorses and not mention Secretariat, so this one is a must-see, but with a few cautions.
Sports films sometimes play with the facts in order to tug at the emotions. That can be especially true of the work of some studios, Disney, which produced this film, among them.
The real star of the film is not Secretariat, but rather Diane Lane, who gives a wonderful performance as Penny Chenery, the owner of financially troubled Meadow Farms. That farm was saved in 1972 by Riva Ridge, a horse that goes unmentioned in the film—a lapse.
The facts of Secretariat’s record-setting 1973 Triple Crown go largely untampered, but a few of the personages do not escape unscathed.
Canadian trainer Lucien Laurin dressed considerably more modestly than he is portrayed in an over-the-top performance by John Malkovich.
The anti-hero here is Frank “Pancho” Martin, the trainer of Secretariat’s chief competitor, Sham, a wonderful racehorse that happened to have been foaled in the wrong year. Martin is portrayed as a bragging loud-mouth, a portrayal Secretariat’s real-life jockey Ron Turcotte took issue with when asked his opinion of the film.
Groom Edie Sweat is portrayed prominently in the film. William Nack, who wrote what many consider the finest story ever written about horseracing, Pure Heart, makes an appearance as well. A film version of that story might have raised this to the level of Seabiscuit but that never happened during Nack’s lifetime.
Secretariat is typical feel-good Disney, complete with rah-rah cutaways. It’s great family entertainment, but might make the true racing aficionado in the family cringe a bit.
(Unrated TV movie, ESPN Films, 2007)
Secretariat and Ruffian are the yin and yang of racing to many fans who remember them both.
This ESPN-produced docudrama is a 2007 television film that documents the life, and tragic end, of perhaps the greatest filly to ever grace a racetrack.
The late Sam Shepard portrays her trainer, Frank Whitely, most prominent in the relatively small made-for-television cast. Bill Nack, a contemporary of both Secretariat and Ruffian, again makes an appearance, portrayed by Frank Whaley.
For the uninitiated, Ruffian was a large near-black filly, taller than most colts, just over 16 hands. In fact, male geldings were used to portray her in this film because of her size. She ran in 11 races, winning 10 easily and often in record times and by record margins.
This is 1975, still in the era of Billy Jean King versus Bobby Riggs and their 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” on the tennis court. It was a time when feminism flourished in the U.S. and the idea of a male-versus-female match race seemed attractive, politics as entertainment.
Ruffian’s final race was a match race at Belmont Park on July 6 against that year’s winner of the Kentucky Derby, Foolish Pleasure, in what was billed as “The Great Match Race.” In an odd real-life twist, Foolish Pleasure’s regular jockey, Jacinto Vasquez, chose to ride Ruffian, believing her to be the better horse.
The result is left to history, save for two remnants of that ill-fated race: There has never been another Thoroughbred match race in the U.S. , and the large pools used today in veterinary clinics to revive horses from anesthesia after surgery are termed “Ruffian Pools.”
That’s all for now. Check back tomorrow for Part 2!
Finally, when you’ve exhausted all these choices, tune into The EQUUS Film Channel. From shorts to full-length features you can’t find elsewhere, for everyone from farriers to fans, EQUUS Film Channel = Horses. No doubt you will come away with some recommendations of your own. Pass them along!