02/22/2013 4:44PM

Jay Hovdey: 'Champions' a movie that needs no embellishment


My favorite disclaimer at the beginning of a movie is from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” to wit:

“Most of what follows is true.”

There followed an hour and 50 minutes of tongue-in-cheeky, anachronistic, Wild West mythmaking of the highest order, plus an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay of 1969.

This year’s movies in the mix for the Oscars, to be passed out Sunday night in Los Angeles, include several with at least one foot in some form of reality. There was, in fact, an Abraham Lincoln, an Osama bin Laden, and a French Revolution. Slavery once was tolerated in the United States, and there was an American hostage crisis in Iran. To what degree any of those very serious subjects is accurately portrayed in their corresponding movies is the stuff of worthwhile debate. However, as to what their creators felt in terms of obligation to the truth, “Zero Dark Thirty” seemed to cover all the bases with its half-baked disclaimer, “Based on real events.”

So is “South Park.”

For this movie fan, Oscar time always lights up a list of all-time favorite flicks that go slumming in the world of sports, both major and minor. It’s easy enough to cobble together something on baseball, basketball or boxing, and football movies have been cool ever since Burt Reynolds rolled his girlfriend’s Citroen-Maserati off the end of that pier in “The Longest Yard.” There also have been movies made about ice hockey, bronc riding, rugby, wrestling, golf (big fan of “Bannon”), track (but not field), and, believe it or not, tennis.

Horse racing movies hold a special place in the heart, be they world-class entertainments like “Day at the Races” and “Let It Ride,” noble attempts at historical drama like “Seabiscuit” and “Phar Lap,” or cartoonish hoot-fests like “The Longshot” and “Hot to Trot.” You got a problem with Bobcat Goldthwaite in silks?

For my money, at any window, the best horse racing tale ever committed to film was the 1984 entry “Champions.” The real events on which it was based were both so outrageously melodramatic and widely documented that the movie’s introductory image of white words on a black screen could be taken as a defiant challenge to suggest otherwise:

“This is a true story. . . .”

Given the credits of its director, John Irvin, it should have been no surprise that “Champions” was a good movie and still is. Irvin’s best known work includes “Dogs of War” (Christopher Walken as a quirky mercenary), “Hamburger Hill” (an unflinching Vietnam tragedy), and “When Trumpets Fade” (just see it). Irvin also directed Alec Guiness through the seminal British TV treatment of John Le Carre’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” against which the more recent, highly praised theatrical version comes off like a little boy trying on his father’s shoes.

It was true that Bob Champion, his real name, was a successful steeplechase jockey in England, just as it was true that his best partner, Aldaniti, was a stout-hearted steeplechaser who seemed on the verge of bigger things as the 1978-79 National Hunt season in England came to an end.

That also is when Champion was found to have testicular cancer.

The following season, with Champion ravaged by the effects of what was then a radical new cancer treatment called chemotherapy, Aldaniti returned to the races and promptly injured a tendon so badly that his career was clearly at an end. Let the record show that both Champion and Aldaniti not only recovered, they went on to win England’s greatest steeplechase prize, the Grand National at Aintree, on April 4, 1981.

Whether the viewer knows the story going in matters not. Just as we know both the 16th president and the world’s most notorious terrorist will be eventually shot dead in the end apparently has not spoiled widespread appreciation of either “Lincoln” or “Zero Dark Thirty.” With “Champions,” it is the getting there that has so many satisfying moments, both large and small, that can be appreciated by the most discerning racetracker.

What does Champion say after his second surgery, a death sentence hovering nearby? “When can I ride again?”

Haggard, weak, and freezing cold watching Aldaniti run without him, who does Champion console when the horse pulls up lame? The groom. When asked what he thinks of Aldaniti’s chances in the National, after both man and horse have made miracle comebacks, how does Champion reply? “The others had better start running now.”

John Hurt also looks fine on a horse and comfortable in their presence, something that could not be said of his encounter with an alien five years before making “Champions.”

As far as the racing, it looks real because most of it is. Irvin’s many cameras embrace both the soaring grace of steeplchasers in flight as well as the terrible violence when things go wrong. Then there is at all times the queasy, underlying contradiction that both Champion and Aldaniti are recovering their health in order to risk their lives in public.

The real Aldaniti (he played himself in much of the film) lived to the age of 27, while Bob Champion, now 64, has been among Great Britain’s most popular sports icons for the past three decades while raising millions for medical research through the Bob Champion Cancer Trust. And there will always be the movie.

“Champions” could have been a maudlin exercise in manipulative mush, trolling in the shopworn show biz clich é s of terminal illness and grace under fire. Instead, for reasons both artistic and technical, the film’s unapologetic commitment to horse racing as a natural piece of the cultural landscape provides the preposterous story with a firm grip on its own fate. In the end, “Champions” stands tall because there is nothing better than a true tale told well.