Updated on 10/15/2010 10:30AM

It's tough to do a legend justice on the screen


For the record, at least in the service of demographic accuracy, it should be noted that even though it felt as if I were the youngest person in the audience late Tuesday afternoon for a discount showing of Disney’s “Secretariat” at the local Ultrastar Theater, I wasn’t. There was also a little girl, who said she was eight, enjoying the movie two rows behind me and to the left. With her grandmother.

I am, however, clearly the last racing fan to see the movie, if the blogs, the chat rooms and the relentless “Secretariat” chatter on the racing channels are any indication. For being so late to the party, I am sorry. I was caught in traffic.

Anyway, you won’t get a movie review here. Horse racing writers who think they are movie critics should either be banned from the press box or the metroplex. Okay, so maybe I’ll confess I spent part of the weekend watching the Ingmar Bergman trilogy of small-cast psychological dramas from the early 1960s (a laugh riot!), and I continue to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “The Magnificent Seven” with repeated viewings, especially since Robert Vaughn, who played Lee (“a coward hiding out in the middle of a battlefield”), is still among us.

For a racing writer to pick apart a film version of the life and times of a racehorse who, for better or otherwise, tops many lists of the all-time greatest is an utterly thankless task. Filmmakers have had the same trouble when tackling the New Testament, although on a slightly larger canvas.

I found myself spinning off from certain scenes or scraps of dialogue to wallow in personal memories of the Secretariat era, of those magazine covers that I held, of those operatic Chic Anderson calls because Chic was a friend, and of the reports from colleagues on the scene who testified to the grandeur of Big Red in the flesh. The movie playing inside my head was choice.

Yes, it is true the creators of “Secretariat” got a whole lot of things wrong in terms of the simple facts of the story, as well as committing a number of incomprehensible goofs around the racetrack. Again, though, racing writers should not review racing movies, because much of the resulting complaints would fall under the category of “so what?” as long as the overall telling of the tale remains true to the rules it sets for itself. Think of “Secretariat” as a combination of truthy and fictionesque, and be at peace.

As for the action, well what are you going to do. No-frills director Don Siegel once said the only way to give the audience the visceral feel of true warfare is to have a guy standing behind the screen firing an M-16 over their heads as the movie plays. I feel the same way about racing action. It has yet to be convincingly replicated on screen and won’t be until, at the very least, movie “jockeys” on the horses finishing second stop pulling on the reins.

For my money, the most preposterous action in “Secretariat” was the running of the Preakness, portrayed as a televised scene viewed by Penny Tweedy’s family back home in Denver, where Jack Tweedy was growing increasingly jealous of his half-ton chestnut rival (good luck with that, Jack). The purely cinematic move Secretariat made on that first turn at Pimlico, going from last to first as if animated by Chuck Jones, could never have happened. Horses just don’t do that. Do they? He did?

I was left with a couple of lingering questions. Were hippies and Vietnam War protesters of the early 1970’s really that lame? Did Penny Tweedy always have violins playing when she spoke? And why do members of the press allow themselves to be portrayed as so thoroughly loathsome and mealy mouthed? I’m just saying.

But for several elements I give thanks. I was truly relieved to see Fred D. Thompson cast as Bull Hancock. For years, every time I pictured Bull Hancock, I thought of Fred D. Thompson.

And who better to play the stoic, courtly Ogden Phipps than James Cromwell, who in another movie incarnation had the privilege of playing straight man to Babe the Pig?

John Malkovich was clearly improvising huge hunks of his Lucien Laurin dialogue and Lucien Laurin behavior, running loose and unrestraiined through the film, like Groucho in “A Day at the Races,” with Diane Lane in the part of Margaret Dumont. Malkovich’s random bursts of French-Canadian might as well have been in Farsi, for all they contributed to the character.

But then there were those occasional flashes of Malkovich’s dark brilliance as an actor when he dropped the camp, and, scripted or not, gave life to the desperate mystery of training a great racehorse.

The biggest disappointment, however, was deeply personal. The scene came at the apparent end of the colt’s 2-year-old season, when the Andy Beyer and Bill Nack characters were flitting around Penny and Secretariat, moths to the flame, badgering her about the prospects for the Triple Crown campaign to come.

At one point, while insulting the colt’s heritage, the Beyer character leaned on Secretariat. Actually leaned on the damn horse, as if he was a high-backed sofa. Secretariat promptly peed on Andy Beyer’s shoe, much to the delight of the theater audience. But sitting there in the dark, my heart sank. I was going to use the same gag with Beyer in my Zenyatta screenplay.

In the end, “Secretariat” is a perfectly harmless, sometimes engaging exercise in a brand of nostalgia that can disarm all but the most committed cynics, while at the same time offering very little nourishment, either artistic or historical. It was a very old-fashioned movie about a really good racehorse who just happened to be named Secretariat.