Big Red on the Big Screen

Part 3 of my Secretariat trilogy is a review of the long-awaited film that opens nationwide on Oct. 8. For those who wish to see the movie with an open mind and not be made aware of its flaws, you can just read the opening and closing graphs. To the casual and non-racing fans, the flaws will be of little concern. As much as I want the movie to do well, and believe it will, I cannot write an objective review in a racing publication without mentioning them. But this is Disney, and on the feel-good meter, it registers a "10."

I decided not to write a review immediately after seeing the movie in order to let it sink in and come to terms with the revisionist history aspects of it. I didn’t think it was fair to offer a knee-jerk critique as a racing aficionado when the film was not geared toward an esoteric viewpoint. As representatives of the film keep pointing out, it is not a documentary.

As I said, I wish the film all the best and hope it does well, because the sport needs all the positive mainstream exposure it can get. And it’s time for people, especially the younger generation, to get an idea just what kind of impact Secretariat had, not just on racing, but on the American public. Imagine a horse today being on the cover of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated in the same week and occupying the entire front and back pages of the New York Daily News. Secretariat transcended racing and sports in general, weaving himself into the fabric of American culture.

Also, the movie has rejuvenated sales of the two books on Secretariat (by William Nack and Ray Woolfe Jr), as well as the new book, “Secretariat’s Meadow,” written by Penny Chenery’s daughter, Kate Chenery Tweedy, and Leeanne Ladin, which has already climbed to No. 1 on in the category of Horses and Racing.

The key word in assessing the merits of the film is “Disney,” and that is not meant in a derogatory way. It is merely drumming in the name of the artist before revealing the painting, so one can be prepared for that particular style of art.

Like most Disney movies, the audiences are going to love the look of the movie and most of all the racing footage. I am not knowledgeable enough about film-making to say whether it was filmed in a form of Stop Action photography, but it had that look, and gave the racing scenes a feel of speed and excitement that is difficult to capture with normal photography. It was extremely powerful and brought the viewer right into the race.

Also, the extreme close-up scenes in the starting gate, including the zoom-in shots right into the eye of Secretariat and Sham, and the jockeys’ hands grabbing a piece of the mane, added to the drama, the tension, and the anticipation that precedes a race of the magnitude of the Triple Crown events.

Although the horses who played Secretariat did not capture the majesty and physical presence of Big Red, the equine stars did well enough, considering there isn’t a horse alive who could have done justice to him.

As for the human stars, Diane Lane really got into the role of Penny Tweedy and was convincing for the most part. She gave a decent enough attempt at portraying the tough, business side of Secretariat’s owner, but Penny was pretty tough and shrewd – she had to be, wheeling and dealing with Kentucky’s bluebloods while still a novice in the sport. Lane didn’t quite reach that toughness, but she did a good job and, as usual, lit up the screen.  And she did well portraying Penny’s determination. Overall, I thought Penny’s storyline, beginning in Denver, was well done and set the tone for the movie, as did the opening title scene, which was powerful and beautifully filmed and directed.

John Malkovich, as great an actor as he is, was pretty much a caricature, geared more for comedic relief, and bore no resemblance physically or character-wise to Lucien Laurin, who was for the most part quiet and understated and spoke with a thick French Canadian accent, which Malkovich did not even attempt. But Laurin’s personality was not geared toward a major movie role, so it is understandable why Disney decided to add its own colorful strokes to his character.

Disney also is known for its countless and unforgettable villains, and every Disney movie has to have its Cruella Deville and Scar. In this case, the stereotypical villain was Sham’s trainer Pancho Martin, who came across as some street thug and obnoxious braggart (“Secretariat is goin’ down!”). Pancho could be gruff, but was tame compared to the character in the movie. Even poor Sham, who suffered enough by coming along the same year as Secretariat, was portrayed as the equine villain, much as the infamous Postman was in the movie “Kentucky,” which by the way had a very similar storyline to “Secretariat,” with Loretta Young playing the Penny Tweedy role, who saves the farm after her father dies. Even in “Seabiscuit,” War Admiral came across as the evil equine, miraculously growing from 15.2 hands in real life to an absurd 18 hands in the movie.

As for the many liberties taken in the movie, I can recall standing outside the Palace Theater in Louisville, Ky. following the premiere of “Seabiscuit,” talking to Penny, and she was very critical of the number of liberties taken in that movie and didn’t have many good things to say about it. It is now seven years later, and welcome to Hollywood, Penny. It was a great touch showing her for an instant in the crowd scene at the Belmont.

Many of those liberties taken were pretty ridiculous. I will list some of them, but must state again that the majority of people who see the movie will not notice them or care, and those are the people to whom the movie is geared.

Penny, Lucien, and groom Eddie Sweat being in the stall for Secretariat’s birth was way too Hollywood and over the top, and was too far removed from reality for even a Disney movie; as was the jockeys for Secretariat’s first race at (“Aqueduct”) mounting and dismounting their horses in the backstretch (filmed at Evangeline Downs), directly outside the barn. That's something you'd see in a low budget 1930's movie. Also, the shot of Penny, Lucien, and Sweat dancing and hip-bumping and Penny washing down Secretariat with no one holding the horse were a bit too much, as was Eddie Sweat standing on the track on the eve of the big race, shouting to the heavens about what the world was about to see. And Penny’s relationship with Secretariat was a bit too spiritual, but we’ll give Disney creative license on that one and the Eddie Sweat scene for the sake of audience appeal. I would like to have seen a little more about his 2-year-old campaign, considering he was Horse of the Year. It was glossed over in a matter of seconds and gave no indication what he accomplished to earn the title. Again, no one will care. They’ll just want to get to the Triple Crown.

And speaking of Horse of the Year, another farcical scene was Penny and Lucien learning that Secretariat was named Horse of the Year by being shown a copy of the Daily Racing Form while having breakfast in the track kitchen. It trivializes the award and the honor that the owner and trainer were not even aware of it and had to see it in the trade newspaper.

That was the same track kitchen where Ogden Phipps offered to buy Secretariat for $8 million. I did think the coin toss scene with Penny and Phipps was well done.

The filming and aftermath of the Wood Memorial was totally bizarre. They showed the correct finish – Sham losing by a neck to Angle Light. But then Pancho Martin starts jumping up and down in celebration, and there is reference by the Secretariat camp to Sham winning the race. It was as if they didn’t know how to handle this, so they went both ways and gave us the right finish and the wrong result. That is something people might notice. Wouldn’t it have made for better drama had Secretariat been beaten by his own stablemate, as it actually happened? Then Penny could have really had a reason to chew out Lucien, which she did. But Disney needed to introduce the villainous adversary at the point, in which case they should have stayed consistent and shown Sham actually winning the race. That was not the time to remain loyal to the truth if you’re going to contradict it five seconds later.

The pre-race press interviews were nonsensical and fabricated, and all that was missing was Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier verbally sparring with each other. If racing did have pre-race press interviews they would have been a lot more boring than the frantic assault of questions and answers shown in the movie, so, why not give it the old Hollywood touch, right?
If you’re going to film the Belmont Stakes at Keeneland, which is like trying to make Rock Springs, Wyoming look like Manhattan, they at least should have made an attempt to hide the fact that it’s Keeneland. This was like a travelogue for Keeneland in all its countrified splendor, showing the grandstand and rolling hills and fields. You just got no flavor at all of Belmont Park and the Belmont Stakes.
Finally, although the long view, ground-level shot up the stretch in the Belmont was effective, as the audience waits for Secretariat to appear, it ruined it for me when the song “Oh Happy Day” came blaring off the screen and lasted for the remainder of the movie. Gospel music and gospel lyrics just didn’t fit at all, and took away from the impact of the stretch run, rather than enhance it. But I have to admit, I still get goosebumps when I watch the real stretch run of the Belmont, and I discovered I also get them when I watch a staged version of it on the screen, despite the odd choice of music.
But as stated before, most of these flaws will be overlooked by audiences. Having lived through the Secretariat years and having been close to the horse, I'm probably not the best person to dissect the movie because of the sharpness of my scalpel. So let me say again, I think the mainstream reviews will be excellent and that audiences will be thrilled and moved by it, and that’s all that matters.

If they walk out of the theater feeling good and being awed by the greatness of Secretariat and the almost mythical persona he still possesses, then the movie will have succeeded. And after having time to digest it and put it all in perspective, I am convinced they will. 

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