Red Pollard: “You know, everybody thinks we found this broken-down horse and fixed him, but we didn’t. He fixed us. Every one of us. And, I guess in a way we kinda fixed each other too!”
[Tobey Maguire, “Seabiscuit” (2003)]
When I was in High School there was one class that I, along with my fellow classmates, especially abhorred. That class was French class. Now it had nothing to do with the French language as a whole. These feelings would have been the same had it been Spanish, German or just about any other language class. I think it tied into our own difficulties with our corresponding English class which just reinforced in everyone’s mind that we didn’t really know how to either understand or to properly use English grammar. Hence, now having us attempt to learn a foreign language was something far, far worse. Therefore, my fellow students would always dread being questioned about either French grammar or its proper pronunciation. However, Devilish little me concocted a means to dodge or to, at least, lessen the possibility of being put into such a situation. You see, our teacher, as did most teachers back then, would usually focus their attention and questioning to the students in the back of the classroom since they were probably the ones least likely to have done their homework, and that our teacher’s gaze would supposedly never directly concentrate on them. Of course, these students were very wrong in this assumption. Hence, I dodged this possibility by always seating myself at the desk directly in front of our teacher’s podium while he conducted his lesson. My face would feign intense concentration, interest, and comprehension of what he was saying as he stared right past me. As he did this I continued my subterfuge by scribbling some inane incomprehensible notes that not even a cryptologist could possibly decipher while my prepubescent mind was whisked away to a tropical isle where I was residing in a hammock fanned by scantily clad island girls eager to please my every whim. You see, this was my version of hiding in plain sight, which always worked reasonably well until final exams came along which unfortunately, thrust me back into cruel reality.
For some of my past Blog Posts I highlighted certain types of subjects that were also sort of “hiding in plain sight,” in that these subjects were usually so obvious that you wouldn’t ordinarily notice them until I actually pointed them out to you. Some past examples were films and television series that had tales involving identical twins/doubles, sidekicks working with a major star, or even team-ups with certain actors working together constantly in different roles. However, this didn’t mean that I, unlike yourself, haven’t missed certain subjects that have been utilized numerous times for theater, film, or television series too! A new one just recently occurred to me by sheer happenstance that made me say to myself, “Why haven’t I ever thought of that one before?” Well, Dear Reader, since I have thought of it now, it will also now be the subject for this month’s Blog Post. It is a subject that has been utilized for numerous stories for both young and old alike. Many famous novels have even been written about it too in many different ways. What is it, you may ask? Well, this month’s Blog Post will discuss tales relating to … HORSES! Now don’t roll your eyes just yet Dear Reader. You might be surprised once I elaborate further!
A number of popular novels about horses were tailor made for adaption into popular motion pictures and television films/series with a number of them being remade numerous times. Some of them were:
- “National Velvet” – based on the 1935 novel and with the most popular version, the 1944 film starring a very young Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet Brown, a 12-year-old English girl who, after winning a gelding in a raffle, decides to train it to run in the Grand National steeplechase with the help of a young drifter/retired racehorse jockey named Mi (Mickey Rooney) and the support of her mother (Oscar winner Anne Revere).
- “My Friend Flicka” – based on the 1941 novel and the first of a trilogy of novels that were all adapted into a series of movies starting in 1943, and which was even adapted into a television series in the nineteen fifties. This one was a coming-of-age story of a young boy (Roddy McDowall) living on a ranch near Cheyenne, Wyoming and his relationship with a young mustang colt named “Flicka.”
- “Black Beauty” – based on the 1877 novel and with so many film adaptions (both silent and sound) along with television, theater, and even animated adaptions that it could make your head spin. This one told the story of a horse in England (from the horse’s perspective) from its early years up to its final retirement, and how it was either treated or mistreated by its various owners.
- “The Black Stallion” – based on a series of twenty novels starting in 1941 with the most popular version being the 1979 film which tells the story of Alec Ramsey (I know! I know!) “another young boy” who is shipwrecked on a deserted island with (I know! I know!) “another black stallion” and, after being rescued, ultimately sets out to enter him in a race against two champion horses after he’s properly trained by an old retired racehorse jockey named Henry (Mickey Rooney… I know! I know! Frigging him again, too!).
It would be nice to say that these were great film/television adaptions but honestly, they really were not. Too often they were more or less made with children in mind, and they were usually dumbed down so as not to seriously offend or shock anyone. Even Black Beauty,” which was originally not intended as a novel for children by author Anna Sewell, but instead, was to foster sympathy, kindness, and a better understanding of how horses were too frequently mistreated as working animals was way toned down to G rated family fare. Maybe the only one previously mentioned that was somewhat decent was “National Velvet”, and that might have been due to the fine performances of Revere and Rooney along with good direction by Clarence Brown (“The Yearling”). Fortunately, there were two other films pertaining to horses that transcended these limitations. One was an adaption from a famous novella by John Steinbeck while the other was an adaption from a famous stage play which was also adapted from a bestselling novel by Michael Morpurgo. The main reason why these two motion pictures might have been so good was because they were directed by two great directors who did not dumb them down to make them palpable for only children. The first one was John Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony” (1949) directed by Lewis Milestone.
“Pony” is a simple slice of life story that takes place on a California ranch at the beginning of the Twentieth Century where stern father Fred Tiflin (Shepperd Strudwick) gives his young son Tom (Peter Miles) a red pony colt to raise while helped by experienced ranch hand Billy Buck (Robert Mitchum). At first, everything goes well, but due to mistakes later made by both Billy and Tom, a tragedy occurs which results in Tom having to face the harsh realities of adulthood. At first glance, this young boy’s coming of age story is nothing original. Nor is the performance of Peter Miles memorable, either, in the role of Tom. However, this was one supposed children’s story about a boy’s love for a horse that had more adult themes. First, although the film followed this tale through young Tom’s eyes, it still didn’t sugar coat the life around him. Fred Tiflin, Tom’s father, is borderline cruel and distant with Tom, his frustrated wife and Tom’s mother Alice (Myrna Loy), and Alice’s senile grandfather (Louis Calhern). This causes family tension all around. Second, Billy and Tom are not perfect but too often, fallible. Third, some of the film’s tragic moments were less muted and, as a result, more shocking than usual for a family film. These aspects of the picture were brought out thanks to Milestone’s fine direction and also by Steinbeck, who adapted two of his novella’s chapters for this picture. “Pony” also had fine color cinematography by former Oscar winner Tony Gallo, and a legendary film score by the great Aaron Copland himself, which has been imitated by numerous motion picture film composers for Westerns ever since. Despite Miles, the rest of the cast gave strong performances and for once, a family film involving a boy’s love for a horse was more than just a children’s film.
The second picture that I also want to praise is the more recent Steven Spielberg motion picture, “War Horse” (2011). This film was basically a World War I war story about an English boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine), whose father wins a thoroughbred colt at an auction despite the fact that the animal is not a working horse that can actually plough their field. Albert names the colt “Joey,” and the two of them develop a close bond with Albert even teaching Joey how to successfully plow their field. Unfortunately, when World War I begins, Albert’s father has to sell Joey to the army despite Albert’s wishes after rain ruins their family’s crops. From that point on a parallel story unfolds involving Joey’s life interacting with numerous individuals on both sides of the conflict along with Albert’s later enlistment and transfer to the European theater’s front lines where both experience the devastation of the conflict while just trying to stay alive.
This picture is not just another boy and his horse “love story,” but a powerful portrait of the carnage of warfare and its effect on both animals and humans. Spielberg had been accused in the past of making Walt Disney like motion pictures focusing on coming-of-age stories of children (“E.T.”) or adventure tales (the various Indiana Jones films) which, while family oriented, could be labeled as overly sentimental, sugary, and too often unrealistically upbeat. He finally silenced a lot of these idiot accusations with his later Oscar wins for “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” For “War Horse” Spielberg tried to have it both ways. The picture was rated PG-13, meaning that it was generally appropriate for children ten-years-old and above although it had scenes of dead animals and people, some swearing, and intense wartime scenes. However, there was no gore, and really no gratuitous violence so it was more acceptable for the whole family. This also was a different type of war film in that there were examples of decency shown by soldiers on both sides of the conflict to Joey even with soldiers on both sides, while under a flag of truce, helping to get the horse untangled from barbed wire in “No Man’s Land.” Yet at the same time it shined a light on how many horses were used by both groups to move equipment and men along with how many more perished during the conflict. It was estimated that overall, 10 million horses died, and that out of a million horses that were sent over by the United Kingdom, only 62,000 returned. “War Horse” was the highest grossing World War I picture ever made up to that time, and it was also nominated for a number of Academy Awards including Best Picture that year too. Was the motion picture sentimental? It sure was! Was it also brilliant Epic film making balancing the horrors of war with a touching tale of humanity as well? Yeah, it sure was that too! But then, that’s Steven Spielberg! And that’s “War Horse!”
Another group of motion pictures about horses were biographical dramas. Some examples were “Secretariat” (2010) about the life of the race horse Secretariat, one of the greatest racehorses of all time, winner of 1973 Triple Crown, and the first horse to accomplish that feat in twenty-five years. Next, you had the comedy drama “Dream Horse” (2020), the true story of “Dream Alliance” an unlikely race horse bred by Welsh bartender Jan Vokes (Toni Collette) who forms a syndicate of her fellow neighbors providing financial support to enable her horse to compete and ultimately win the Welsh Grand National. Then you had the story of the horse, Comanche, not overcoming long odds to be a champion, but overcoming long odds to stay alive. It was, supposedly, the only horse of the 7th Cavalry Regiment under George Armstrong Custer to survive after their annihilation at the Battle of the Little Bighorn for the kids friendly Disney motion picture, “Tonka” (1958). The first two that I just mentioned had their merits, but for “Tonka”, well, other than the fact that (1) Comanche was just one of a number of horses that actually survived the battle with the Indians taking the rest while leaving the badly wounded Comanche behind, (2) the picture made up a fantasy story that the horse was originally named Tonka because another movie just came out then called “Comanche” (not about a horse) forcing Disney to change the name of their film, (3) except for a couple of native Americans in the cast, all of the rest of the Indians were either Latinos, or Caucasians led by Italian born Sal Mineo playing “White Bull”, the main Indian character, and (4) as an accurate biographical drama about Comanche, the hackneyed “Tonka” was nothing more than a crock of “Bull!”
Fortunately, a better biographical drama about a horse, even if it was about another race horse, was the motion picture, “Seabiscuit” (2003). Based on the celebrated non-fiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, “Seabiscuit” was a biographical drama of one of the most famous Thoroughbred racehorses of all time and the three individuals who helped the horse to achieve its fame. First, you had the horse’s owner, Charles S. Howard (Jeff Bridges) a self-made multi-millionaire who, after a personal tragedy, acquires a stable of racehorses, one of which, is an older, smaller, lazy, and unmanageable horse named Seabiscuit. Second, was Howard’s trainer, Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) an itinerant horseman and man of few words who utilized innovative methods in training the horse to become a champion. Third, and last, you had jockey John “Red” Pollard (Tobey Maguire), who is injury ridden, blind in one eye, and down on his luck when he is hired by Smith to be Seabiscuit’s jockey. Director Gary Ross (“Pleasantville”) expertly captured, not just the excitement of the horseracing competition, but also the general mood of the time period (1936-40) that Seabiscuit’s story took place. Since this occurred during the Great Depression, this classic underdog story of such a horse becoming a champion was, for a lot of the American public then, a sign of hope during a time of great economic hardship. Ross, an accomplished multiple Oscar nominated screenplay writer also wrote the film’s fine screenplay, and he is additionally helped by expert cinematography from John Schwartzman, narration from famed historian David McCullough, and good acting by his talented cast. Although the picture was a big hit with multiple Oscar nominations, it was still criticized by some for being sort of old fashioned and sentimental, sometimes to a fault. However, close to twenty years later it still holds up very well as maybe being one of the best biographical horse racing dramas ever made.
Other examples of fine character driven dramas involving horses was the film “The Rider” (2017) directed by Chloe Zhao (“Nomadland”). This picture is a slice of life true story about Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau, playing himself), a young former rising rodeo star who’s forced to retire after suffering brain damage during a competition. Now living in poverty with his fractured family, the picture dramatizes his efforts to try and find a new way of life after what he loved most is snatched away from him. Another fine film was “The Mustang” (2019) directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre. It starred Matthias Schoenaerts as a violent long term incarcerated convict who participates in a rehabilitation program centered around training wild horses for future sale at auction, and how he personally changes during the process. Lastly, for television, you had the short-lived HBO series, “Luck” (2012) about the intersecting lives of various individuals involved in horse racing at the Santa Anita race track. While the series received critical acclaim and had top notch talent both behind the scenes (Michael Mann, David Milch, etc.) and in front of the camera (Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Joan Allen, etc.), unfortunately, it was abruptly cancelled due to three horse deaths occurring during the show’s production. These examples were all a step above the normal stuff usually associated with dramas pertaining to “horses.”
Lastly, also for television, you even had comedies (both good and bad) involving talking horses. Two of them I will mention further before closing this month’s Blog Post. First, for the “bad” you had the CBS nineteen sixties sitcom, “Mr. Ed” (1961-66). Basically, this show was about a klutzy accident-prone married architect named Wilbur (Alan Young), and his palomino horse, the aforementioned “Mr. Ed” who only talks to Wilbur and no one else which causes Wilbur all sorts of trouble whenever his wife or other individuals see him talking to the “horse,” and with Mr. Ed not saying anything “of course!” This show was originally based on a series of short stories, and Arthur Lubin, the show’s producer and sometime director, was originally involved ten years earlier with another series about a talking animal. Would you believe this guy directed six of the “Francis, The Talking Mule” movies before tackling Mr. Ed? Maybe he was more used to directing talking animals instead of talking “humans!”
Anyway, “Mr. Ed” was the first of a bunch of sixties sitcoms that were labeled “Fantasy Sitcoms” like ABC’s “Bewitched” and “The Addams Family”, and NBC’s “I Dream of Jeannie” and, my favorite (not), “My Mother the Car” about someone with… you guessed it, a talking car (at least it didn’t have some mouth appearing on the grill work whenever it spoke). Fortunately, that one was cancelled after one season. Unfortunately, “Mr. Ed” lasted six long seasons. The show’s juvenile humor was basically designed for children in mind so it was as silly and as stupid as humanly (or maybe non-humanly) possible. CBS seemed to have a habit of making a number of these mindless sitcoms for children like “My Favorite Martian,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Dennis the Menace,” and even “Lost in Space” (although not an actual sitcom) where the children were smarter than the adults. For “Mr. Ed” instead of a child acting smarter and more adult than Wilbur, you now had a horse smarter than brain dead Wilbur, and who could probably teach him a thing or two about how to properly count by the number of times the guy could be taught to stamp his F*&king Foot on the ground! However, as a fun side note, years later after this mental waste was off the air but still seen in syndicated reruns, an Ohio fundamentalist Christian group claimed that this show’s well known theme song was “Satanic!” About the only thing you could possibly say to that one is… Neigh! Neigh!
However, for the good you had the far better series about a talking horse with the Netflix adult animated black comedy-drama, “BoJack Horseman” (2014-20). The series’ premise revolved around a horse named BoJack Horseman, a washed-up star of a 1990s sitcom called “Horsin’ Around” (Hmm! Now, there’s a Catchy Name!) currently living in Hollywoo, an alternate world (patterned on Los Angeles) where humans and anthropomorphic animals live and interact side by side. BoJack, now in his 50s, is a bitterly cynical, depressed, and self-loathing alcoholic. Although he can be caring and insightful, he constantly self-sabotages himself, which causes turmoil in all of his personal and professional relationships. He plans a return to public relevance with a tell-all autobiography ghostwritten by Diane Nguyen (a human) while contending with his agent/former girlfriend Princess Carolyn (a pink Persian cat) and his sitcom rival, the thrice married Mr. Peanutbutter (a yellow Labrador Retriever) whose former wives include Diane Nguyen and Jessica Biel (I’m not kidding)! To say this show was off the wall, is putting it mildly. The series was created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and with the illustrations provided by Lisa Hanawalt. It was the first Adult Animated original series done for Netflix. Since the series was not on regular Network television, they were able to address numerous hot-button issues like substance abuse, gun violence, abortion, sexual harassment, LGBTQ characters, and so much more. For the first year the series got mixed reviews, but once “Horseman” finally settled down it got universal acclaim for the remainder of its run. Just like for “The Simpsons,” numerous stars either showed up to spoof themselves or they played other animated characters. They even had actress Margo Martindale play herself in an episode where BoJack played the racehorse Secretariat in a fictional movie version of the horse’s life. It just so happened that Martindale had a role in the original film version of “Secretariat” (2010). No coincidence there, Dear Reader! But is the series actually funny you may ask? You better believe it!
So, if you’ve never seen “BoJack Horseman”, gallop… I mean, race… I mean trot… I mean… Oh, you know what I mean! Just go see it!
And speaking of seeing… see you all next month!
2 thoughts on “Just Horsing Around!”
Thanks Nelson for another entertaining blog.
For the first time, I think, I’ve never seen any of the movies you discuss. Sorry to say that’s not true of the Tv series. “A horse is a horse, of course, …” One of my sisters liked Mr. Ed when she was very young and I heard the jingle enough times so it’s stuck permanently in my brain. Wish I could get rid of it. Maybe if I watched Black Beauty?
Jerry, nothing can get that Damned Mr. Ed jingle out of my head! I’ll still be hearing it even if I’m nothing more than ashes on the ground!
“War Horse” is a great movie and if you have to pick one picture out of the bunch that I mentioned, that would be the one I’d choose!