More film commentaries

- Amazing Grace

- Blade Runner

- Million Dollar Baby

You might also be interested in...
Spiritual mentors who honored creation
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
St. Francis of Assisi



Written by G. Lee Ramsey, Jr.

Directed by Gary Ross
Universal Pictures, PG-13 rating

Every now and then a big production movie comes along whose impact outpaces all the pre-release hype that puts it prancing in the starting gate. The movie startles and carries you for a ride worth remembering, if not taking over and again. Seabiscuit is such a movie.

The story is adapted from Laura Hillenbrand's well written account of the depression era, 1930's thoroughbred racehorse, Seabiscuit. A boxy horse with an "eggbeater" gait and a stunted tail, Seabiscuit has all the pedigree and none of the winning marks of a first-rate racehorse. After three years of racing abuse, frequent whippings from frustrated trainers and riders, and with only occasional victory, Seabiscuit has descended to lackluster sprints around the minor tracks. That is until Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), a seasoned trainer, spots the beauty within the beast. He convinces Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) to buy Seabiscuit and to take a long shot on a horse that hasn't yet been taught to run.

The magic begins when the down-and-out jockey, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), blind in one eye and prone to quoting Shakespeare, desperately pleads with Smith for a chance to ride Seabiscuit. Pollard finds his horse and Seabiscuit finds his rider. Together, they take the nation of the 1930s and the contemporary movie viewers for a ride. They overcome injuries to horse and rider, defeat all challengers— even the unbeatable War Admiral—rack up some of the fastest race times on record, and eventually win the prestigious Santa Anita Handicap on a third and final try. When the spirited Seabiscuit mounted by the crippled and grinning Pollard prances into the victory circle at Santa Anita, everyone in the theater feels like a winner. "Don't think," said Pollard after the race, "he didn't know he was the hero."

So what is it about this movie that jolts? It's just a horse, right? Something out of American sports history that only a few people know or care much about?

For starters, Seabiscuit taps something deep within the American psyche. This is a story about much more than a horse. It is about those periods in our history (this one happens to be the Great Depression) when as a people, pride has been beaten down and hope is without a face. Seabiscuit, the horse, gives shape to both. Seabiscuit, Pollard, and Smith are the comeback kids, the dark horses, the unlikely heroes who for a season lift the heads of a people whose unemployment lines have grown long and who need to see an undervalued loser find his winning stride.

At the height of Seabiscuit's fame, in his 1938 challenge of War Admiral, one in three Americans listened to the radio broadcast of the race. While President Roosevelt reminded the nation that, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," a gutsy horse and a fearless rider flashed around the tracks to give flesh to such belief. As the author Hillenbrand states, "For a brief moment in America, a little brown race horse wasn't just a little brown race horse. He was the proxy for a nation." The film works this theme beautifully.

There is more, however, especially for those who watch Seabiscuit through the eyes of faith. Seabiscuit, Pollard, Smith, and Howard affirm the essential dignity and worth of all creation—humans and animals. These characters forge a bond upon the anvil of common dignity that God bestows upon every creature. As Smith says to Howard when tending to a wounded horse, "You don't just shoot somebody when he gets a little beat up, do you?"

The theme recurs throughout the movie. We can't help but be moved when the crippled jockey, Pollard, nurses the wounded horse, Seabiscuit, back to health. "Seabiscuit and I were a couple of old cripples together," the jockey said later, "all washed up. But out there among the hooting owls, we both got sound again." Such statements don't need religious dressing. Those with ears to hear can discern underneath the dialogue the persistent care of God—the source of life—who in the beginning declares that all of creation is "good."

This leads to the most compelling spiritual dimension of the film. For all its pounding hooves, Seabiscuit quietly displays at the core the character virtue of tenderness. Like an injured jockey patiently exercising a lame horse, gentleness walks among the scenes of this movie. Moments of care between horse and owners provide a counterpoint to the blistering racetrack scenes. For example, the champion racehorse Seabiscuit shares his stable with a saddle pony, a stray dog, and a monkey. These lowly "friends" calm his high-spirits. Pollard, the roughneck jockey and former boxer, is prone to violent temper tantrums, but he reads Shakespeare in his spare time. He recites poetry to the horse. Smith and Howard make business deals based far more upon their respect for each other than their desire to win. At the heart of each of these characters resides tenderness, malleable yet principled. So when racing victory comes, it tastes that much sweeter.

We are a people hungry for tenderness. Especially in these days of global fear, meanness on the streets, false victories, and unaffordable health care, we long for blessed kindness. We yearn for a little compassion towards those who are wounded, a little respect for those tossed on life's scrapheaps. As Leonato says in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, "There are no faces truer than those that are so washed [with kindness]. How much better is it to weep at joy than to joy at weeping!" We want to run races worth winning, not for the payout but for the sheer joy of getting there together. What better place to find God than as somehow wrapped up in these human longings shared by so many, and practiced more often than recognized.

Seabiscuit thrills, to be sure, and you may just cheer or clap in the theater when the odd-gaited pony crosses the finish line. But I'm betting that this horse does much more than thrill. I'm wagering that Seabiscuit and his rider remind us for a few moments, with a lifetime to work out the details, of who God creates us to be.

Copyright ©2003 Dr. Lee Ramsey