“You don’t just throw a whole life away just because it’s banged up a little.”
Tom Smith (played by Chris Cooper)
“This is not a movie about victory, but about struggle.”
Gary Ross, Screenwriter/Director
Seabiscuit turned five this year — not the horse, of course, but the movie. And I wish Universal would re-release the film in theaters this holiday season. (In the digital projection future those decisions will be easier to make.)
The film originally came out in the summer of 2003. The economy was still in a slump from the terrorist events surrounding 911. Unemployment was high. The Laura Hillenbrand book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, about a race horse set in the Great Depression was already a #1 New York Times bestseller.
The movie had a solid box-office run and was nominated for 7 Academy Awards. It was not only my favorite film of that year, but I’d put it in the top ten of my all time favorites. In my book it is across the board solid filmmaking on par with Rain Man and On the Waterfront. As time goes by that film will continue to find favor because it is a film with many layers.
(Seabiscuit is also the only movie poster I own. And as seen in the above photo, I keep it close by where I edit for inspiration. It just so happened that I moved to Iowa in the Summer of ’03 and for various reasons it was a hard enough transition that I saw Seabiscuit three times just in movie theaters.)
And the reason I’d love to see a re-release of the film is because the theme resonates even more today than it did even in 2003. Unemployment is higher today than it’s been in the past 15 years. While the stock market hasn’t crashed it has recently seen some of its greatest declines since the Great Depression. And then there is the auto industry.
Seabiscuit is set in a time of transition in the United States. A transition from the natural to the mechanical on one level and an examination of the American Dream on another level. And all wrapped together around three broken people and one broken horse.
It’s a movie that could have turned into a bad After School Special in the wrong hands, but in careful hands is a classic movie.
Of course, one thing that is happening now that wasn’t the case in 2003 is the auto industry is in a slump. What has been called the back bone of industry in our country is in trouble. Reports of sales being a third lower than normal are causing a ripple effect throughout the country. By some accounts the auto industry represents 10% of all US jobs when you begin to connect the related industries.
Maybe we could have a double feature with Seabiscuit. Remember the Ron Howard film Gung Ho? It starred Michael Keaton as a worker who has to justify his automotive job with the Japanese company that has taken over. By all accounts some US automotive companies need some major restructuring to survive.
In the movie Seabiscuit automobiles represent the future and bring wealth to Howard (played by Jeff Bridges), but it comes at a price. His son is killed in an automobile accident. And it is Howard who must find a way to put the pieces back together again. And along the way there is the forgotten horse trainer (Chris Cooper) and the angry jockey Red (Tobey Maguire) who are all brought together because of an underrated race horse. It’s a story of brokenness and restoration.
On the DVD commentary Gary Ross comments, “Howard is a guy who lost his son, and Red is a guy who lost his father. That’s just kind of the basic facts of it both in almost a cataclysmic way. And that original wound can never be righted but you can make peace with the pain in your life and somehow kind of continue. It can’t replaced, but it can be understood.”
And what’s special about Seabiscuit is it’s a film that connects with most of our lives. In fact, the closing shot is not one of victory, but one of a point of view of the audience on the horse as if to imply this is race we are all in. There will be battles and scars. But get back on the horse. As one friend tells his little boys when they get scrapes–”cuts and scars are proof of living.”
And Ross is careful to convey that these characters are far from perfect. “We labor under the tyranny of perfect heroes. Especially with movies that cost any money and everything gets homogenized down to things that are not objectionable or that are only heroic. The things that are ultimately most heroic are people struggling against their own obstacles or struggling to become something or struggling against their flaws and that’s what’s really heroic right there. I was lucky, I had three flawed heroes.”
And of course, this all started with the words written by Laura Hillenbrand as she researched and wrote the book over a course of years. Struggle is not foreign to Hillenbrand who has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome since she was a college student in Ohio.
At 19 she had to abandon her dreams of some day getting a Ph.D. and in an interview with Anne A. Simpkinson said, “I spent the first year of my illness pretty much bed-bound and when I began to improve a little bit in 1988, I needed some way to justify my life.” She turned to writing.
In an article she wrote for The New Yorker, A Sudden Illness — How My Life Changed, Hillenbrand recounts the long process of adapting to her new life and how hard it was to write, “Because looking at the page made the room shimmy crazily around me, I could write only a paragraph or two a day… It took me six weeks to write 1,500 words.” Knowing that adds weight to her writing (not that it needs it).
“Man is preoccupied with freedom yet laden with handicaps.”
Seabiscuit, An American Legend
If you’re a writer, Hillenbrand recounting the difficulties she endured while researching and writing Seabiscuit will probably give you little room to complain about the difficulties surround your situation. She wrote the first article on Seabiscuit from a tiny apartment in Washington, D.C.
And whatever grace Hillenbrand tapped into to write that book was passed on to screenwriter Gary Ross as he translated the 400 page book into a two hour and 21 minute movie. And in one of the rare cases in movie history the author was pleased with the movie script; “I found myself struck by how deftly Gary had managed to weave so much of the story into so short a time without it feeling compressed or rushed. Gary’s screenplay is simply brilliant, and I am so deeply grateful to him for his immense effort, his creativity, and his inspiration.”
On a closing note, if I recall correctly there were some interesting choices Ross made while adapting the script. I don’t expect to see every character in the book but from memory here are a handful of changes you may find interesting from a writer’s perspective and why I think they were made:
1) Howard’s son who was killed in real life was a teenager and not his only son. By making him younger and the only son creates more empathy for Howard.
2) Howard’s second wife Marcela (Elizabeth Banks) was actually the sister of his son’s wife. But why complicate the story? Plus in the movie there is only one son and he’s killed in his youth.
3) Tick-Tock McGlaughlin the colorful character played by William Macy is a fictitious character. And by Ross’ admission he’s there to compress the needed exposition to keep the story moving forward.
4) Ross also chose to end the movie when a sense of order had been restored in each of the lives. It’s a great jumping off point. But the epilogue in the book is a little different.
5) Hillenbrand writes that while Red lived close to the pulse of Tijuana that, “he appears to have passed up offers from Tijuana prostitutes.” Ross chose to use Red in the brothel as key scene where he learns of his vision problems. This is in the movie because I think there is a quota in Hollywood where x-amount of movies must have a prostitute or a pole dancer in it.
If you have never seen Seabiscuit do yourself a favor and see it before the end of the year, and if you just lost your job watch it tonight.
And for the writers out there here’s Hillenbrand quoted in the Ballinetine Books, Seabiscuit, The Screenplay reminding us of the power of storytelling:
“I was thinking ‘if I can sell five thousand copies (of Seabiscuit) out of the truck of my car, I’ll be happy.’ I just wanted to tell the story.”
Update November 27: Happy Thanksgiving. A day after I wrote this post I saw an ad for a new film called The Tale of Despereaux with the tagline about a “Small Hero. Big Heart.” Sounded kinda like Seabiscuit. I looked who to see who the screenwriter was and it’s Gary Ross. I look forward to that Christmas release.
If you’re looking for a Thanksgiving movie to watch today check out Pieces of April on DVD which is a wonderful film I’ve written a little bit about. It stars Katie Holmes and was written and directed by Des Moines, Iowa native Peter Hedges (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?). And for you indy filmmakers that film was made just a few years ago using a Sony PD 150 DV camera that you can find on ebay these days for under $1,500.
photo & text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith