Monday, April 2, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Seabiscuit" (2003)

I'm going to try something a little different for this edition of the Reeling Backward column. First of all, as you may notice I'm featuring "Seabiscuit," which came out in 2003. Though this is generally a spot for discussing classic films, I've always stated that I held the prerogative to decide exactly how far backward we shall reel. In this case, just nine short years.

Most importantly, though, I'm going to break down the ways in which the film, written and directed by Gary Ross, differs from the nonfiction book by Laura Hillenbrand. I've always been enamored of this movie, and meant to read the book for many years. I had sort of assumed that when you're dealing with such a well-researched, well-documented story like that of Seabiscuit, the movie would have to hold pretty closely to the historical record.

Having just completed the book, I was struck by the number of ways, large and small, that the film strays from what actually happened. So I'm going to document them, and discuss why I think the filmmakers changed things around for the movie adaptation. It's sort of a dissertation (or bloviation) on the screenwriting process.

Red's other injury

The brilliance of both Hillenbrand's book and Ross' film rests squarely on one thing, in my opinion: to make this the story of three men, each in some way broken, and how they were connected by a downtrodden, over-the-hill racehorse and found not just glory in the winner's circle, but redemption in their own lives.

As such, anything that deviates too much from the tale of the trio -- jockey Red Pollard, trainer Tom Smith and owner Charles Howard -- becomes problematic in terms of cinematic storytelling. Even a 2-1/2 hours film cannot cover everything in a 350-page book, so the primary challenge in adapting any written work to the screen is distilling it down to its purest essence.

The film faced an additional challenge with the real, complicated history. When Seabiscuit won his most important race, a match contest against the heavily favored Triple Crown winner War Admiral, he was ridden not by Pollard but George Woolf, perhaps the greatest jockey of his era. As depicted in the movie, Pollard had suffered a horrible leg injury while giving a workout to a horse owned by an old friend who was down on his luck.

But in actuality, Red suffered two serious career-threatening injuries. While riding a mare owned by Howard, he suffered a horrifying crash and had his chest crushed by the horse. It was only while he was preparing his comeback that the leg incident occurred.

This is a classic example of a screenwriter combining events or characters for the sake of simplicity. If you have a character suffer a sickening injury, it shocks the audience. But if they turn right around again and have another awful spill, it takes away the dramatic impact of the first injury. Now he seems not just unlucky but cursed. An audience will have sympathy for a character who suffers, but not for one who never gets a break. It's the line between compassion and pity, the latter of which is not a good way for your audience to regard a main character.

Horses and riders

There's another very important reason why the film omits Pollard's injury while riding another Howard horse. If this is the story about the special bond three men have with the same horse, then you can't have other horses horning in on the relationship.

In the film, Seabiscuit has one rider, until Pollard is injured, then Woolf takes over for awhile until Pollard comes back for the triumphant race at the end. But while the horse had only two riders (as far as the flick is concerned), the two riders rode other horses -- many of them. As Hillenbrand describes in the book, jockeys in the 1930s were essentially independent contractors who moved from horse to horse according to their luck and the shifting situation. While a typical racehorse might participate in 40 races in their entire career, a top jockey might ride in that many in a couple of months. It was not at all unusual from them to run multiple races in one day.

So even while Pollard was riding Seabiscuit, he was riding other horses -- including others from the Howard stable. The movie makes it seem as if Seabiscuit was the only racehorse Howard owned. Smith the trainer was training other horses, too. In fact, major stables are a lot like factories, with new horses being constantly foaled or acquired, aging horses retired out to stud, and young colts and mares developing to replace the current stars. The Biscuit was the top but certainly not the only horse in the game.

Again, from a storytelling perspective the logic here is pretty straightforward. You don't want Pollard and Woolf to seem like mercenaries. They weren't -- both considered Seabiscuit the best horse they ever rode, or saw, according to the book. And you don't want Smith and Howard to seem like barons overseeing a village of horses, even benevolently.

By cutting out any mention of other horses, it makes the connection with Seabiscuit seem that much more special.

The 100-grander

Along those same lines, the movie has two big races that form the dramatic high points: the match race with War Admiral, and the Santa Anita Handicap, known as the "100-grander" for its (for the time) enormous cash prize. Pollard and Seabiscuit lose the 1937 Santa Anita due to a mistake by Red -- another horse closes up on the jockey's blind side (more on that later) and beats them at the wire.

From then on, the 100-grander is presented as their "white whale" -- the big one that got away. After the Biscuit is himself injured and makes an unlikely return to racing, the 1940 Santa Anita becomes their big comeback, and the film's concluding triumph.

But actually, another horse owned by Charles Howard, Kayak, won the 100-grander in 1939, when Seabiscuit was convalescing.

In the book, Howard openly expresses his regret that it was not his top horse who won the '39 race. But still, it's hard in a movie to have a big finale be such a huge emotional catharsis when another horse from the same stable, trained by the same trainer, already won the Big Race.

The movie is generally faithful to Seabiscuit's running style -- he was a "stalking horse" who rarely broke out of the gate well, but ran down the lead horse when it began to tire. But they cheat on the last race at Santa Anita, showing him lagging and falling all the way to the back of the pack before coming from behind to win it.

In reality, the Biscuit never ran lower than third place during the race. But from a dramatic standpoint, it adds to the story of the Little Horse That Could, when everyone thought his return to racing after a serious injury was ill-advised, for ignominious failure to loom so closely.

It was also not Seabiscuit's first race back -- he ran a handful of others before the 1940 100-grander, winning one of them.

"I can't see out there!"

Speaking of Pollard's blind spot: Hillenbrand makes it quite clear that if the fact ever got out that Red had no vision in his right eye, his jockeying career would have ceased immediately. No race official would let him on a track, and any trainer or owner who knowingly allowed a half-blind rider on their horse would probably be banned, too.

So it's highly unlikely that Pollard would have told Smith and Howard, as he does in the movie, about his blindness. And even if he had, they would have felt compelled to turn him in, if only to protect their own positions.

In fact, apparently the only person Red told about his impairment was his wife. (Red had a wife?!? Yep. See next.)

From a cinematic standpoint, having Pollard confess his deepest darkest secret only strengthens the bond between the three men. The movie also romanticizes how Red lost his sight, attributing it to being punched too many times while moonlighting as a boxer during his early, lean years.

While it's true that Red fought in the ring, he lost his vision through pure, dull accident -- he was practicing a horse when a stone in the turf flipped up and smacked him in the head. Not terribly sexy.

Red's wife and early life

One of the biggest omissions in "Seabiscuit" is that during his long recovery from his injuries, Red Pollard fell in love with his nurse and proposed to her. They were already married by the time he won the Santa Anita Handicap. She stood by him all during his subsequent declining years, after he washed out as a budding trainer and went back to jockeying in the bush leagues.

So why leave her out? I would say it comes down to pure economy of storytelling. Again, the movie is about three men redeemed by an amazing horse. Although you could write it so his commitment to hearth and home is part of his character's evolution from proud loner to someone who relies on and is relied upon by others, you already accomplish that with the horse as the medium. You'd have to spend at least several scenes building up that relationship, and with the movie already clocking in close to 150 minutes, the wife becomes expendable. Also, that would have augmented the amount of screen time spent on Pollard, overbalancing the three-legged story triad.

The film cheats on Howard and Smith's families, too. Though the movie (and to a lesser extent the book) seems to suggest that Tom Smith is a mystery man who just rode in off the plains one day, he had a wife and children. In fact, his son was a trainer in his own right, and actually trained horses for Charles Howard's son, Lin. There's a whole chapter of the book devoted to a foul-plagued race between Seabiscuit and Lin's horse, hyped as a "fathers vs. sons" affair.

The movie also plays with the timeline of the death of one of Howard's other sons, making it seem as if it preceded his interest in horse racing fairly closely. That accident actually happened many years earlier.

There's also the timeline of Red's young life. The film shows his father buying him his own horse at the age of 16. Some time later after the stock market crash, the now-destitute Pollards leave young Red in the care of a horseman -- this would have been at about age 18.

In reality, Red was already a seasoned jockey by that age, at a time when it was not unusual for "bug boys," as fledgling riders were called, to start riding at 15, 14 or even younger. His parents arranged for a family member to be his chaperon, but the man promptly abandoned Red to his own devices.

The filmmakers rejiggered things here because the idea of a 15-year-old kid so wantonly kicked to the curb by the grown-ups in his family would be a major turn-off to the audience. Remember: compassion, not pity.


The movie spends only a little bit of time on Smith's reticence to talk to the press. In fact, he was fiercely secretive, working out his horse in the middle of the night to avoid scrutiny, and even playing games with the press and the public to misdirect them away from the Biscuit.

It went so far that Smith had Howard purchase Seabiscuit's brother, Grog, who had nothing of his speed or spirit but looked exactly like him. Smith used Grog as a decoy so much that it was said that only he and some of the grooms knew for sure which horse was being paraded around as the mighty Seabiscuit at any given time. Even Howard was fooled on several occasions.

So, thousands of people and reporters who'd traveled far and waited long to catch a glimpse of the famous Seabiscuit were often really staring at a counterfeit.

Movie-wise, the reason for omitting this is simple: It's OK for Smith to seem taciturn and stubborn, but you don't want him to look like a total dick.


The one sequence where the movie does show Smith working his horse out in the middle of the night was in preparations for the match race with War Admiral. It depicts them working to train Seabiscuit to begin without a starting gate, using a bell as a cue. It makes for some powerfully disquieting scenes of Pollard, still fragile from his shattered leg, riding around the track in total darkness.

But Smith did all of this training for the match race out in the open, during the daytime for everyone to see. The press witnessed and reported on the progress. Smith generally only worked his horses in secret in order to score a low "impost," or carrying weight from the track official. Since the match race was only against one other horse, who were agreed to carry the same weight, there was no benefit in training in secret.

Also, the movie plays a little footsie with that starting bell. It shows Smith and Pollard offering to buy a bell from the local fire department. At the time of the race, Smith sneaks the jury-rigged contraption up to the starter's booth so it gets used as the actual bell to begin the race.

In actuality, Smith built his makeshift bell out of an old alarm clock and some wood planks. And the starters really did use it to begin the race, but only because the official bell wouldn't work. Hillenbrand slyly suggests that Smith may have had something to do with sabotaging the track bell so the one Seabiscuit trained with would be the one used for the race. Again, this is the difference between gamesmanship and being a dick.

Weighing the weights

A huge part of the game-within-the-game of horseracing is imposts -- the amount of weight a horse carries, including jockey, saddle and lead weights. Short version: horses with winning records and big reputations were assigned higher weights than less successful horses. The difference could be 30 pounds or more -- an astonishing  handicap where every extra pound of weight can translate to a horse length over the course of a race.

This would be the equivalent of boxers from different weight classes being forced to fight each other, or one team of baseball players being allowed to use corked bats and greased balls, or weaker golf players getting to use the closer tees. Reading the book, it was astonishing to me that any sport can allow such an obvious and meaningful disadvantage to be pinned to its best athletes.

As described in the novel, owners and trainers spent a huge portion of their time strategizing how to get their horses assigned lower imposts. Howard and Smith on several occasions scratched Seabiscuit from races at the last minute because they felt the high weight assigned would either doom his chances of a win, or risk an injury.

At first I was puzzled by the notion of such an important aspect of the strategy of horseracing being left out. But what it comes down to is not wanting Team Seabiscuit to look like a bunch of whiners. Sports heroes are not allowed, at least in the movies, to complain about the advantages enjoyed by their opponents.

On a similar note, in reality Seabiscuit was not a "mudder" -- a horse adept at running well in wet track conditions. Indeed, he was quite poor at it. Hillenbrand notes again and again in her book that it was Seabiscuit's Achilles heel: his only real weakness as a racehorse. Smith and Howard scratched the Biscuit from plenty of races they deemed too wet, raising the ire of the press and the paying public.

The War of the Biscuit

Which brings us to the big showdown between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, the dramatic peak of the film. Here, Ross plays quite fast and loose with the facts in order to build up the cinematic showdown.

He accurately shows Howard trying everything to set up a match race between the Admiral, the best horse in the East, and Seabiscuit, who ruled the West. What the movie doesn't depict is that there actually was a race set between the two, with all the parties agreed -- but Seabiscuit was scratched due to an injury. Then there were other, regular races with a full field that included both champions, but weather or injuries led to one horse or the other scratching.

Not too hard to figure out the reasoning here -- the bumpy reality giving way to the smooth-building dramatic tension in the movie version.

The film also does a lot to build up the physical dominance of War Admiral: he was taller than the relatively small Seabiscuit, was beautiful to look at compared to the Biscuit's mottled "cow pony" looks, and had the regal bearing of a high-bred champion. Smith goes so far as to call Admiral "a monster" when scouting him before their race.

Reality check: though shorter, Seabiscuit was more muscular, possessed a wider chest and in fact outweighed the Admiral substantially.

Another thing "Seabiscuit" fails to mentioned: the two horses were closely related. In fact, though he was a couple years older Seabiscuit was War Admiral's nephew. They were both descended from the great Man O' War -- War Admiral directly, while the Biscuit was his grandson. They also shared some of their forebearer's personality traits, including stubbornness and a streak of rebelliousness.

So why paper over the horses' similarities? Easy -- when you're making somebody out to the be the Bad Guy, you want him to be seen as The Other: strange, frightening, exotic and threatening.

I should mention that after examining all these variances with the book, I still greatly admire "Seabiscuit" the movie. Though some of Ross' changes might seem like egregious affronts to the historical record, filmmaking sometimes is about changing around the facts to leave the "inner" truth  unobscured by pesky realities.

3.5 stars out of four

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