Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Last fall, my wife and I on a date went to see the movie, Secretariat. I distinctly remember having blogged about it, but a search of my blog entries suggests otherwise. I do recall that I got a nasty cold shortly thereafter, so it may be that my false memory is a result of Nyquil and that I never actually got around to it.

Secretariat was one of the few films that my wife and I both wanted to see and both ended up really liking. This does not happen too often because we usually have vastly different cinematic tastes. In fact, I don't think we actually went to a movie in the theatre together as a couple until after we were married.

We both liked Secretariat better that Seabiscuit, which is a great horse film and novel in its own right. For whatever reason, Secretariat never seemed to be the major blockbuster that Seabiscuit was, probably at least in part because of the fact that Seabiscuit was also a best seller in book form before it became a film. Seabiscuit was also very well advertised. Secretariat never had the same media blitz, and it also lacked the historical 1930's period feel that Seabiscuit captured. Let's face it, the early 1970's was just not a particularly romanticized time, what with Hippies and Watergate and horrendously bad fashion and decor. Why, on the other hand, we want to romanticize the Great Depression is something of a mystery to me. But, hey, fedoras and tommy guns and late 30's automobiles are just cool looking unlike lime green crockery and burnt orange polyester furniture. With those handicaps, my money, so to speak, is still on the movie Secretariat over the movie Seabiscuit. 

I liked Secretariat for several reasons. One of which was that I thought it pretty fairly depicted the American South from that period. I learned in the article I will reference below, that the director likewise grew in Tennessee. Depictions of the South, in movies particularly, general tend to be derogatory, and being a good Southerner I tend to get defensive about such things. And the time of this film was largely set in the late George Wallace era, which also I think Hollywood types like to exploit by depicting all Southerners as hateful rubes and rednecks or else as rejects with exaggerated accents that blew out of Gone with the Wind. Some Southerners were and are still like that, don't get me wrong. My point is that Southern history is a lot more nuanced and more complicated than that. Constantly depicting all Southerners in that stereotypical vein I don't think is particularly helpful to anybody.

That having been said, I thought Secretariat did well in depicting this Southern family in a cultural period of transition on the national level. The men are wearing vests, which I appreciated because that's an oft overlooked Southern fashion accoutrement that never makes it into films. The father figure in the film is a great depiction of the Southern white family man. He's educated and successful, but is largely culturally conservative.

There was a great line in the film (one of the best throw away lines I've ever heard) when one of the daughters is involved in some anti-war Christmas play at school. The tortured father is trying his best to sit through it and be supportive, and the mother (and owner of the horse) calls on the phone later. The other daughter answers, and the mother asks how the play went. And the daughter says words to the affect that she liked it but, "Dad thinks it was a bunch of Commie crap..." I can't tell you how many times I heard that term growing up in the South. That was the perfect depiction of Southern white men who were vehemently anti-Communist and were thus very suspect of any anti-war movement types or sentiments.

The cultural depiction aside, I thought the cinematography, particularly with how they filmed the 3 legs of the triple crown was particularly well done. In one of the two first races, I believe they were using actual film footage of Secretariat's actual race. The final race was filmed fresh not using footage but was still filmed from the same angles as the original footage. I, of course, knew the ending of the final race as it was once of the most incredible athletic feats of the 20th Century. My wife did not know this going into the film, so she was surprised at the ending. That final leg of the triple crown was in the top ten greatest sports moments of the century on most lists by sports writers done in preparation for the Millennium change in 2000.

I thought the film did a pretty good job of capturing the back story with the other horse that was running as Secretariat's nemesis throughout the film, though I think if I had been directing I would have played that sub-story up a bit. The horse that came in second to Secretariat in all three races was a descendant of the horse that Seabiscuit beat in the climax of that film. I was surprised that wasn't mentioned in passing in the film version of Secretariat. Also, what was amazing was that the times that that horse made in coming in second would still have been world record times had Secretariat not run. Beating the world record 3 times, and coming in second all three races...truly amazing.

In any event, I talk about Secretariat here because some other blogs have linked to a story here in Christianity Today that involved an interview with the director of the film. (I am presuming that this interview appears now because the film is coming out on DVD this month. A DVD I intend to purchase.) The interview jogged my memory about the very opening of the film, which was very poignant in that the film opens with a narration from the Book of Job.  I remember sitting in the theatre and being taken aback by that because I can't remember the last film I saw in the theatre that flagrantly references scripture, particularly in a direct opening narration. I absolutely loved it because I love that passage of scripture, and I also like to see religion take a place in popular culture in a positive way. Hollywood types like to pretend it doesn't exist unless they know they can make money off it.

The Job passage was thus:

 19 “Have you given the horse its strength
      or clothed its neck with a flowing mane?
 20 Did you give it the ability to leap like a locust?
      Its majestic snorting is terrifying!
 21 It paws the earth and rejoices in its strength
      when it charges out to battle.
 22 It laughs at fear and is unafraid.
      It does not run from the sword.
 23 The arrows rattle against it,
      and the spear and javelin flash.
 24 It paws the ground fiercely
      and rushes forward into battle when the ram’s horn blows.
 25 It snorts at the sound of the horn.
      It senses the battle in the distance.
      It quivers at the captain’s commands and the noise of battle.

Given this incredible feat the movie ends on, this choice of scripture was a brilliant cinematic motif in my opinion:

I would only add that after Secretariat died years later, they did on autopsy on him to see what made him different than other horses. It turned out his heart was literally twice as large as a normal horse heart, which meant he could process blood oxygen at an incredible level, which partially explains the feat seen above. Though, keep in mind, that the horse that finally comes in second in that clip above still beats the previous track all time record for time.

1 comment:

Raisin said...

Thanks for the review, Archer. You gave me just enough detail that I now plan to look for the DVD. Happy New year.