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Film / Seabiscuit

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Seabiscuit is a 2003 American sports drama film about the racehorse of the same name. Written and directed by Gary Ross and based on Laura Hillenbrand's 1999 nonfiction book Seabiscuit: An American Legend, it charts the collision of four entities — three humans, one horse — in the creation of that legend.

During The Great Depression, John "Red" Pollard (Tobey Maguire), the child of a Canadian family, is left in the care of a race horse trainer. While learning the ropes of being a jockey, Red earns additional income in underground boxing matches, leading to a severe head injury during a fight that blinds him in one eye — potentially ending his jockeying career almost before it's begun.

Meanwhile, Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), an office clerk for a bicycle company, is handed a new life by fate. After a happenstance involving a broken-down car, Howard finds automobiles fascinating, learning as much as he can about being a mechanic. Applying his new skills and no small amount of talent, Howard becomes an expert in cars in general, earning a living first modifying cars and then selling them, rapidly rising to be one of the largest and most successful car dealers in California. His charmed life is visited by fate again, however, when his son Frankie (Dyllan Christopher) dies in a car accident. Howard is unable to cope, sinking into depression to the point that his wife Annie (Valerie Mahaffey) leaves him and life as he knows it comes apart.

Since he can only obtain a divorce in Mexico, Howard travels across the border where he meets Marcela (Elizabeth Banks), whom he ultimately marries. Seeking a new focus for his life, he finds horses and, using his existing fortune, acquires a stable and horses, hiring itinerant horse trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper). Smith, in turn, convinces Howard to buy Seabiscuit, a troubled horse past trainers have labeled a lost cause but whose lineage suggests that, in the right hands, he could become something great.

Following a fight between Red and other stablehands, Smith hires Red as Seabiscuit's jockey, figuring their matching attitudes and tempers would complement one another. While there are some teething troubles, Smith is ultimately proven correct, and Seabiscuit quickly becomes a favored underdog for the millions suffering in the Depression.

Smith finally contrives a match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, the top race horse in the country, but Red breaks a leg during training and is told he will never be able to jockey again. Red recommends an old friend, George Woolf (Gary Stevens), as a replacement. With Red's coaching and insights in how to handle Seabiscuit, they defeat the favored War Admiral, but Seabiscuit suffers injury at Santa Anita some time later. Red helps Seabiscuit through his recovery and, using a brace he built for his own injured leg, Red rides Seabiscuit in the final race at Santa Anita against Woolf on another horse. When Red and Seabiscuit fall to the back of the pack, Woolf reins in his own horse to pull even with Seabiscuit, using the same technique he'd used in the War Admiral race to get Seabiscuit fired up enough to pull ahead and win his final race.

While there are separations between the film and the events that inspired it, the Broad Strokes of the film are generally accurate. Some modifications were made for the sake of drama or to create An Aesop, but the film is largely on point, particularly for a historical heartwarmer.

This film provides examples of:

  • Adapted Out: Many aspects of the true story were removed to better focus the film's story arc. Among the things that were changed: Charles Howard had multiple children; Howard maintained a stable full of racehorses and jockeys; Red fell in love with, and married, the nurse who cared for him after he broke his leg. Red, prior to breaking his leg, also suffered another serious fall where his chest was crushed and had to spend many months convalescing.
  • And Starring: The cast roll here ends with "and William H. Macy".
  • Arc Words: Take a shot every time Howard, or someone in his presence, uses the words "The future!" More subtly: "You don't throw a whole life away just 'cause it got banged up a little."
  • Armor-Piercing Question: After Red blows Seabiscuit's first race by losing focus after another jockey cuts him off, he stubbornly and angrily defends his position by constantly asking, "What was I supposed to do?!" Howard goes quiet, then gently asks him, "Son, what are you so mad at?" Red is then forced to confront his repressed rage at being abandoned by his parents, and he's much happier for it for the rest of the movie.
  • Artistic License – History: Also fitting in with "Adapted Out" is the real-life background of Red Pollard. The film depicts him as having grown up in an affluent family that lost its fortune in the Great Depression, forcing him to leave to seek his fortune in racing. The real-life Pollards lost their fortune in 1915, long before the Depression, when their brickyard in Edmonton was destroyed in a flood.
  • Big Eater: Red has a hearty appetite and enjoys heaping helpings once he realizes that Howard actually wants him to eat.
  • Birds of a Feather: Red Pollard and Seabiscuit. Two used and abused misfits who are angry at the world for how it has mistreated them, now out to show the world what they can accomplish.
  • David Versus Goliath:
    • Seabiscuit was the David to War Admiral's Goliath.
    • Not just to War Admiral. Seabiscuit was never expected to amount to anything, he was even forced to lose to build the confidence of other horses.
      • Though physically this is Artistic License on the part of the filmmakers. In reality, and in Laura Hillenbrand's original book, War Admiral was a short solid bay—in other words not unlike his closely-bred cousin Seabiscuit, but with a lighter frame.
      • It is also urban legend that Biscuit was held back to give other horses ego trips. A racehorse trainer (especially one as good as Jim Fitzsimmons) would never sabotage one owner's horse to benefit another—an extremely serious accusation, as that's how you lose clients and your reputation. Biscuit lost races and trained poorly because Fitzsimmons did not know how to meet his specific training needs, and he did not respond well to attempts to motivate him more conventionally, ie, by suspending Fitzsimmons' usual restriction on whip use during training. While the presence of the better horse in the stable was likely connected to Seabiscuit being overlooked—Fitzsimmons himself is quoted in the book as simply having been too busy to give Seabiscuit the one-on-one training necessary, especially in a stable full of more obvious prospects—there's no evidence to support the theory of intentional sabotage.
  • The Day the Music Lied: During the historic match race against War Admiral, Seabiscuit jumps out to an early lead. After a while, though, he begins to slow, accompanied by mournful music, allowing War Admiral to catch up. But Seabiscuit slowing was a Batman Gambit on the part of his jockey, George Woolf, and (injured) regular jockey, Red Pollard, who knew that the horse would push himself harder if the other horse was matching his speed. It worked, and Seabiscuit won. This was, as Hillenbrand's book described, Truth in Television (well, except for the music).
  • End of an Age: The Wild West being fenced off and cattle herding falling out of favor due to the rapid transport of the steam engine is what forces Tom Smith to give up his idyllic cowboy lifestyle to become a horse trainer, eventually leading him to Charles C. Howard and Seabiscuit.
  • Expecting Someone Taller:
    • War Admiral is described as being 18 hands high, while Seabiscuit himself is described as being "barely fifteen hands". In reality, Seabiscuit was 15.2 and War Admiral only an inch taller at 15.3. The most notable physical differences between them in real life (War Admiral was almost a hundred pounds lighter but had legs several inches longer than Seabiscuit's, and was overall a more refined horse) would have been difficult to portray in film.
    • Inverted Trope: One reviewer called Tobey Maguire, Red's actor, "the world's tallest jockey." Maguire is normal height at 5'8" (173 cm), close to the real-life Red's height, which is exceptionally tall for a jockey. It's also clearly a bad thing, since Red was forced into an eating disorder to keep weight off. (Granted, other jockeys also had eating disorders, but it was even worse for Red than for them.)
  • Fiery Redhead: Red can be brash and impulsive. At the start of the movie, he has clear rage issues that eventually subside. Doesn't make him any less fiery, however.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Bet War Admiral's trainer wishes he'd taken their offer for a match race back when they were still green, rather than waiting till Seabiscuit had become a nation-wide phenomenon with enough victories under his hooves to break the Admiral completely.
  • The Great Depression: The Stock Market crashing is what sets off the plot.
  • Grief-Induced Split: Charles's wife leaves him after the death of their son in a car accident, forcing him to travel to Mexico in order to obtain a divorce.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Red, at first.
  • Historical Badass Upgrade: War Admiral's portrayal is embellished to make Seabiscuit more of an underdog. He's portrayed as a gigantic and very imposing horse with superior breeding. In reality, War Admiral was small, nicknamed the Mighty Atom, and at most 0.3 hands taller than the famously small Seabiscuit.
  • It's All My Fault: Implied for Charles regarding his son's death. In the film, Charles pressures his young son to drive down to the lake to go fishing instead of staying home reading. His son initially declines, but eventually does so to make him happy, then ends up in a fatal accident. Charles cannot be thinking anything but this as he cradles his son's lifeless body.
  • Like a Son to Me: Charles comes to love Red like a son and continues to support him even in the wake of a serious injury. Eventually, Charles becomes more preoccupied with keeping Red safe than winning races.
  • May–December Romance: Marcela falls for Charles, who is around twenty years older than her.
  • Meaningful Echo: "You don't throw a whole life away just 'cause it got banged up a bit." First said by Tom Smith to Charles Howard to explain why he saved the live of a race horse with a bum leg just because he can't race anymore, later said by Charles to Tom to explain why they should give Red another chance, even though he lied to them about being completely blind in his right eye.
  • Mood Whiplash: Red is growing up in an affluent household while elsewhere, Charles C. Howard celebrates his rags-to-riches success with friends. Then the Stock Market Crashes.
  • Narrator: Historian David McCullough narrates the film.
  • New Technology Is Evil: While not evil per se, the film likes to show how the popularity of bicycles and automobiles just cannot match the enrichment that working with horses bring to people's lives. For instance, Howard's investment in automotive manufacturing leads to his downfall when the Stock Market crashes, and leads to the death of his son when the kid goes out driving in a truck, whereas investing in horse racing with Seabiscuit gives him the will to live again.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Charles Howard's son dies in a truck crash. It's the final straw that breaks the back of his already strained first marriage, sets him into a deep depression, and causes him to give up bicycles and automobiles in favor of horses again.
  • Parental Abandonment: Red's career starts when his parents, who are broke and unable to support all their children, tearfully leave him with a small-time horse trainer. The reality was less harsh; while Johnny Pollard was abandoned at a racetrack, it was by a soon-to-be-former family friend who was meant to be chaperoning him in his early career at his mother's request and his parents were terrified and furious when they found out. Red stayed in touch with them and helped them financially, even before riding Seabiscuit began to pay off.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Played up in the film, though certainly true by traditional horseracing standards. Charles C. Howard even uses this to get good press.
    Howard: [laughing] I don't know what's worse! Our horse is too small, our jockey's too big, our trainer's too old, and I'm too dumb to know the difference!
  • Reality Is Unrealistic:
  • Secondary Character Title: Seabiscuit is the protagonist's racing horse.
  • Team Dad: Charles C. Howard has bits of this, especially to Red Pollard, as does Tom Smith. Howard also has bits of Team Mom as well.
  • Team Mom: Charles Howard and Marcela both play this part.
  • Slobs Versus Snobs: Seabiscuit and his trainers (from the rough and rugged Western horse racing style) versus War Admiral and his trainers (from the clean and pristine Eastern horse racing tradition).
  • Smug Snake: War Admiral’s owner Samuel Riddle is perpetually cocky and believes War Admiral to be superior to Seabiscuit.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Refreshingly averted. The film takes artistic liberties here and there, especially to make the characters look more sympathetic, but for the most part it stays true to life. If anything, they downplayed some of the fantastic events of the real story!
  • Weight Woe: Very much Played for Drama, as Red and the other jockeys have eating disorders forced on them by their employers to keep them at the ideal weight for riding. Part of the reason Red warms to Howard is that Howard lets him eat.
  • Wham Line: There's a quiet, brutal gutpunch to the way the description of Seabiscuit's disastrous early career finally concludes.
    When they finally did race him, he did just what they'd trained him to do. He lost.