nenena: (Devi - Flaming Tara)
nenena ([personal profile] nenena) wrote2012-07-20 04:45 pm

Secretariat vs. Seabiscuit (or: Superhorses, Superheroes, and the Movie Directors That Love Them)

So I saw Secretariat for the first time last night. It was... Well, it was a Disney movie about a genetically mutated superhorse with John Malkovich in it. That's what it was.

Of course it was impossible for me to watch the film without comparing it to the (far superior IHMO) Seabiscuit.

Seabiscuit really did live a soap opera of a life.

The one thing that absolutely amazes me about Seabiscuit is how little of Seabiscuit's story had to be fictionalized in order to make it a proper Hollywood-esque story. I mean, that's the reason why to this day everybody loves the story of the real Seabiscuit: Because Hollywood couldn't make up something this perfectly dramatic if they tried. A self-made but selfless businessman who loses his family in a tragic accident? An unorthodox horse trainer who's widely regarded as a crackpot in the racing community? A gifted jockey who was abandoned by his family as a teenager, who has a disability, and who has a reckless need to prove himself? A horse that nobody thinks will be be good for racing and that is so damaged in so many ways that he is eventually sold at a rock-bottom price to Charles Howard? Of course the humble, gentle trainer widely regarded as a crackpot is able to heal and train the horse to become a champion racer. Of course the broken-down jockey finds an unlikely father-figure in Howard and of course Howard loves the young jockey as if he were his own son. Of course a villain emerges in the form of Samuel Riddle, the snobby blue-blooded old boy who actually did publicly mock Seabiscuit in the media of the time. Of course Seabiscuit and his plucky underdog humans challenge Riddle's champion horse to a match race. Of course said plucky underdog humans use their wits, intelligence, and deep knowledge of horses to come up with a clever strategy that helps Seabiscuit beat his Triple Crown-winning opponent in the match race. Oh, and then of course the tragic jockey is horrifically injured and told that he can never race again. And then right after that Seabiscuit is injured and told that he'll never race again. And of course both the jockey and his horse refuse to retire and instead work tirelessly to rehabilitate themselves. Of course the still-injured jockey risks his life to race Seabiscuit in the one race that they lost by a nose the previous year. Of course Seabiscuit wins the race - despite his own injuries and that of his jockey - and redeems his reputation as a champion. Of course.

All of that stuff that I just described? That. Really. Happened. The film fictionalized so little of the melodrama in Seabiscuit's story that it's kind of incredible. Even more amazingly, the film actually had to skip over some of the more dramatic twists in the real-life Seabiscuit saga in order to stay within a trim (*cough*) two hours and twenty minutes running time. Did you know that even before the accident that shattered his leg, Red Pollard almost died when a horse fell on top of him and broke his arm, his sternum, and all of his ribs? Did you know that while Pollard and Seabiscuit were both trying to heal their legs at Ridgewood Ranch, Pollard actually managed to re-break his leg while stepping into a hole?

Oh, and did you know that in real life, Seabiscuit had an honest-to-God spidermonkey sidekick named JoJo? And that he refused to travel anywhere or to sleep in a strange stable without JoJo in his stall? Yep. Like I said: Hollywood couldn't make this shit up if they tried. Although I think it was perhaps a wise decision that the monkey sidekick was left out of the Seabiscuit movie entirely because hey, Oscar-contender films have to maintain a certain level of dignity.

The things that the film did change from the real story - such as the fact that Howard had four sons instead of just one, or the fact that the real Red Pollard was blinded by a rock that was kicked up by a galloping horse, not in a boxing match in Mexico - are ultimately inconsequential to the real heart of the story. Seabiscuit is a classic underdog story about a horse that nobody thought could win, blended quite skillfully with a classic drama about a small group of broken people who form an unlikely surrogate family. Again and for the third time: this is stuff that Hollywood couldn't make up if they tried.

As for what it looks like when Hollywood does try, though... Well, that's what Secretariat basically is. It's Disney making up a wholly fictionalized story in order to make Secretariat an appropriately dramatic subject for an inspirational family film.

Secretariat, not so much with the soap opera dramatics.

The problem is that in real life, there is very little that could be considered Hollywood-esque about Secretariat's story. Secretariat was never an underdog. There was no cackling villain in Secretariat's story. There is no inspirational lesson about the value of hard work, staying true to your beliefs, or following your dreams to be learned from Secretariat's story. In fact, if there is any lesson at all to be learned from the tale of the real Secretariat, it's that luck is blind, and that sometimes fate can be cruel for no reason. It was blind stupid luck that determined the outcome of the coin toss that resulted in Secretariat belonging to Penny Chenery rather than Odgen Phipps. It was the randomness of a freakish genetic mutation that allowed Secretariat to accomplish feats that no other horse had ever accomplished before or matched since. And it was the cruelest luck of all that Frank Martin decided that Sham should be a Triple Crown contender the very same year that The Goddamn Secretariat entered the Kentucky Derby.

But a story of blind, stupid luck and cruel, heartless fate does not a Disney movie make. So Disney fictionalized the fuck out of Secretariat's story. Instead of being a successful farm that owned multiple Kentucky Derby and Belmont winners, Meadow Farm became a failing farm with no champion horses to its name. Instead of being an extremely successful and well-reknowned horse trainer, Lucien Laurin became a down-and-out failure with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. The entire plot about Penny being in danger of losing the family farm and coming up with a desperate plan to risk everything on Secretariat winning the Triple Crown was pure bullshit. And poor Frank Martin! Not only did the film turn him into a blustering villain (something which the real Laurin and Ron Turcotte have repeatedly criticized the film for), but in real life (by all accounts) he was incredibly professional and polite to Penny Chenery, even when stuck in a situation in which most of the rest of us would be screaming swear words at God and cursing our fate over and over again.

Hold on to your butts, I'm going to derail this post to talk about horse genetics and the X-Men for a minute.

Yes, really.

Your average thoroughbred race horse has a heart that weighs about seven pounds. There is, however, a specific gene - and I swear to God, not making this up, this gene is actually called "the X-factor" and it passed down maternally, just like the X-gene in the X-Men comics and movies - that results in oversized hearts in race horses. The bigger the horse's heart, the faster and longer it can run. Before Secretariat, a "superhorse" (yes, they actually use that term too) with the X-factor gene could end up with a heart weighing around thirteen or fourteen pounds. To say that a horse with a fourteen-pound heart can outrun the fuck out of a horse with a seven-pound heart is kind of an understatement. That's why these horses are called "superhorses" without a trace of irony in the racing community.

Sham was a superhorse. After his death in 1993, an autopsy found that his heart weighed a stunning eighteen pounds. Eighteen fucking pounds. Sham was a superhorse among superhorses.

The year that Sham ran in the Kentucky Derby, he broke the world record for horse racing at that speed and distance. And he did so after ripping two teeth on the starting pole and bleeding (and no doubt suffering incredible pain) throughout the entire race. But you know what? Nobody remembers Sham for that accomplishment, because he came in second to Secretariat, who also broke the world record for that speed and distance by running 4/5 of a second faster than Sham.

Fucking Secretariat.

If not for the fact that Sham had the misfortune of running during the same year that Secretariat competed, he would have easily been the one setting all the records and winning the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. Sham would have been the first horse to win the Triple Crown in twenty-five years. Sham would have gotten all of the fame and glory that he rightfully deserved.

But luck is stupid and fate is cruel. Sham never won a single of the three American Classic races, because Secretariat was running the same year. And Secretariat beat him every time.

Hey, remember what I said about superhorses having a genetic mutation that gives them gigantic hearts? Well, it turns out that Secretariat had the mutant X-gene too. After Secretariat's death and autopsy in 1989, guess how much his heart turned out to weigh. Go ahead, guess.

The answer is either 21 or 22 pounds, depending on which source you believe. That is three times the weight of the average thoroughbred's heart.

Secretariat was a mutant among mutants. A genetically gifted horse whose speed and endurance has yet to be approached by any horse that's lived since. Sham never stood a chance.

But when Secretariat was alive and competing, however, nobody knew for sure whether he had the X-gene or whether he was actually a genetic mutant or not. The Disney film is correct that although Secretariat was widely favored to win the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown, most experts really did predict that Secretariat risked exhaustion, failure, or even death if he came out of the starting gate with too much speed too early in the race. Nobody thought that Secretariat had the strength to keep up his "top" speed throughout the entire brutal 1.5-mile length of the Belmont race.

That's why everybody - I mean EVERYBODY - was totally, utterly flabbergasted when Secretariat not only did the improbable, but the actual fucking IMPOSSIBLE when he ran the Belmont Stakes:

Around 2:35 you can hear the crowd completely lose their shit because they realize that Secretariat is doing what no goddamn earth-born horse should possibly be ABLE TO DO and yet this fucking. goddamn. horse. This "miracle horse" in the words of the announcer.

1.5 miles in two minutes and twenty-four seconds. Think about that for a minute. A 1,175-pound animal running 1.5 miles in two minutes and twenty-four seconds.

I know, I know. You're probably thinking, but Nena, the top human runners in the world and cheetahs can run that fast! Heck, I read Wikipedia and I know from my internet learnings that cheetahs can run twice as fast as that! Well yes, that's true. But. Humans and cheetahs don't weigh 1,175 pounds.

To this day, the records times that Secretariat set for the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont still stand. No other horse has ever come close to being as fast as Secretariat was (save for poor, poor Sham) and likely never will.

This. goddamn. genetic. mutant. horse.

But freakish genetic mutations do not inspiring Disney films make, so Disney's Secretariat had to invent all sorts of bullshittery - overcoming impossible odds! saving the family farm! believing in your dreams! goddamit we are going to WRING AN INSPIRATIONAL MESSAGE OUT OF THIS STORY IF IT KILLS US - instead of telling the real story.

And making up fiction about real historical figures is one thing, but Secretariat is set in the 1970s and most of its starring "characters" are still alive today. This is history that most of the target audience for Secretariat lived through and witnessed first hand, either on their television screens or by reading the vast amount of newspaper and magazine coverage that Secretariat received. To add insult to injury, Disney chose to show actual photographs of the real Penny Chenery, Lucien Laurin, Ron Turcotte, Elizabeth Ham, and Eddie Sweat during a "where are they now" montage that plays before the ending credits start to roll. And Penny Chenery's blurb actually says that she succeeded in "saving the family farm." Which in reality, she never did. Because she never had to. By explicitly connecting the fictional story of the film to the real-life people involved, Disney legitimizes its pure bullshit take on Secretariat's story in way that frankly kind of infuriates me.

Also? Horses aren't, you know, good actors.

The other major criticism I have of the film is that there are multiple scenes in which the camera zooms in on "Secretariat"'s eyes in order to show the audience... Uh, I guess that the horse is like, really determined to win? Or something? I really don't know. Those multiple zooms right into the horse's face and eyes completely baffled me. I think director Randall Wallace wanted us to see how, I dunno, passionate and determined Secretariat was supposed to be. Or whatever. The problem is that horses aren't great actors, and in the film Secretariat was portrayed by several different horses that mostly looked bored or confused whenever the camera zoomed in on their faces. I know that intelligent animals like horses can show great emotional expressions on their faces, but it's very difficult to capture those emotions on film because animals can't show expressions like "passion" and "determination" on cue. What's worse is that the horses who portrayed Secretariat in the film actually were real thoroughbred race horses, and if you put any horse bred for racing in front of camera and tell them to hold still, then of course they're going to look bored and confused. Except for that one shot of "Secretariat"'s face that was clearly taken with a camera inside a starting gate, in which the horse looked directly at the camera with such a clear "what the fuck GET THAT THING OUT OF MY FACE" expression that I actually burst out laughing when I saw it. I almost can't believe they actually left that shot in the film instead of editing it out. Yeah, real great job making your horse actors look passionate and determined, Disney.

I will say, however, that Secretariat did do one thing right, and that was the absolutely amazing dramatizations of the Derby and the Belmont races. If you do rent the film, just fast forward to the part when Secretariat runs the Derby, and the part at the end when Secretariat runs the Belmont. Both sequences are beautifully shot and surprisingly suspenseful, mostly because Wallace (wisely) allowed the dramatic tension of the races to speak for itself, rather than trying to incorporate the rest of the movie's bullshit narrative and bullshit characterizations into those scenes.

Now that, right there, is a great piece of filmmaking. (And you all spotted the real Penny Chenery making a cameo in that scene, right?)

Semi-final words.

So... In the end, I guess I don't really have much more to say here other than that I didn't like the film Secretariat. The real Secretariat certainly was an inspirational figure who was beloved by millions, and his owner, trainer, and groom certainly did work incredibly hard to get him to become the champion race horse that he eventually became. But I guess a story about a horse that everybody expected to run really fucking fast but then blew everybody away by running REALLY FUCKING FASTER THAN WAS THOUGHT POSSIBLE just wasn't an *~inspirational~* enough story for Disney. Never mind that the horse was widely regarded as an inspirational figure in real life, that's just not good enough for a Disney movie!

Or maybe Disney thought that they could make a film based on Seabiscuit's formula for success, so they tried desperately to shoehorn the elements of Seabiscuit's story into Secretariat even when it resulted in making up total bullshit out of whole cloth: This movie needs a villain! This movie needs a loser trainer with a chip on his shoulder and a reputation to redeem! This movie needs a jockey with a dangerously risky riding style! This movie needs to have message about following your dreams no matter what the impossible odds! And hey if we can't have the Great Depression as our backdrop crisis constantly causing our plucky heroes suffering and obstacles to overcome, then we can at least make up a bullshit story about Penny Chenery needing to save her failing family farm from financial disaster, right?

And what gets me about this, what really gets me, is that I'm sure that there actually WAS plenty of real-life drama during Secretariat's racing career that Disney could have mined to provide dramatic fodder for the film. Did Penny Chenery never face any sexism or discrimination in the racing world? (In the film there is exactly one person, and only one person, who ever makes a single sexist remark to Penny - and that's Frank Martin. Who in real life never [publicly] said any such thing.) I would have loved to have seen a film about a woman determined to have a successful career in such a machisimo-dominated field as professional horse racing. But I guess sexism isn't dramatic or interesting enough for Disney to build a film around. And what about Lucien Laurin? Seabiscuit crafted a lot of drama based on scenes in which Tom Smith trained and then re-trained Seabiscuit to become a great racehorse. Yet Secretariat never once showed a single moment of Laurin actually training Secretariat, even though Laurin was a major character in the film. Training big animals to do incredible things is interesting to watch and can provide easy dramatic fodder for a family film. Why didn't we see any of that in Secretariat? I guess because Randall Wallace was too busy filling the movie's running time with those close-up shots of the horse's faces that had no purpose and ultimately just served to highlight what terribly bad actors horses are.

In closing: Secretariat sucks, watch Seabiscuit instead, horses can be extremely emotionally expressive in real life but you just can't teach the darn things to emote on cue in front of a camera, and oh by the way "the X-gene" is real and it exists in thoroughbred race horses. Not that you would know that from watching the Disney version of Secretariat, however, because the fact that Secretariat carried the X-gene or the fact that he had a mutated heart was never once mentioned in the entire film.

And now, since I'm in a silly mood and I'm talking about horses and genetic mutations and superpowers anyway, here is possibly the stupidest thing I have ever written in my journal:

If famous racehorses were Marvel and DC superheroes...

Secretariat = Deadpool. Arrogant, snarky, lazy, loved being the center of attention, famously a horndog, and possessed of a freakish genetic mutation that made him absolutely indestructable on the racetrack. Secretariat performed a feat on the Belmont track that would have killed any other horse, and he clearly reveled in showing off during every minute of it. Beloved by millions and affectionately given the nickname "Big Red."

Man O' War = Captain America. The First Avenger of horse racing. Man O' War may not have had superhorse powers on the level of Secretariat or Sham, but he definitely had the X-gene, and he was in many senses the heart and soul of the American racing scene that was just starting to emerge at the end of World War I. Man O' War was so famously loyal and devoted to others that he died of a (literal) broken heart just days after his longtime groom and best human friend Will Harbut died.

Sham = Cyclops. Sham would be widely regarded as the greatest mutant superhorse ever, if not for the fact that he happened to be running in the same races as somebody else with a flashier superpower and more devoted fanbase than he could ever hope to have. Perpetually scoffed at for being boring, having no personality, or having a crappy superpower, Sham is little-known outside the horse racing world and prone to being mischaracterized as a snooty douchebag whenever somebody tries to make a dramatization of Secretariat's story.

Gallorette = Wonder Woman. Ventured out of her female-only racing circuit in order to act as a hero and ambassador to the World of Men - I mean, er, World of Stallions. Incidentally ended up being stronger, faster, and more kickass than all of the men - sorry, stallions - who ended up challenging her, too.

Regret = Rogue. The first filly to win the Kentucky Derby and definitely a superhorse, although Regret never seemed to be quite in control of her superhorse powers, hence her inconsistent winning record. Almost always ranked unfairly low on lists of the greatest racehorses of all time, despite being faster, stronger, and more powerful than many of the stallions ranked higher than her.

Seabiscuit = Batman. Seabiscuit did not have the X-gene and thus had no superhorse powers, but through intelligence, strategy, and incredible physical training, he was able to successfully fight crime win races. Was known for training in the middle of the night and being able to run fearlessly around a race track in pitch-black darkness. He was the night. At one point he was crippled and told that he would never race again, but he tirelessly worked through physical rehabilitation until he could - against all odds and against all predictions based on medical science of the time - make a spectacular return to racing. Also, he had a famously angry, brooding personality. But Seabiscuit's brooding personality finally mellowed out a bit after he was finally paired with his plucky sidekick horse Pumpkin. Eventually Seabiscuit's number of sidekicks grew to include a dog named Pocatell and a monkey named JoJo.

Donerail = Spiderman. A scrawny little nerd of a horse with a losing record in his race career who was never popular with all of the cool kids at his stable. Nobody ever expected this horse to become a superhorse. Yet he won the Kentucky Derby despite 91-to-1 odds and ended up setting a track record. And yet, to the dismay of many, he was sadly left out of The first Avengers movie Blood-Horse's definitive list of the top 100 U.S. racehorses of the 20th century.

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