Monday, January 27, 2014

Australian Audient: Phar Lap

This is the first in a series in which I target one viewing per month of a movie from Australian cinema.

Happy Australia Day!

What better day to start my new 2014 series, Australian Audient?

To start out, I was planning on watching one movie my mom taped off cable back in the early 1980s, and ended up watching another.

Between the years 1983 to, I want to say, 1986, the technological planets aligned for my mom. She both knew how to record things on our VCR and had a subscription to The Movie Channel. I seem to remember my dad -- far less of a movie fan -- eventually overruling the Movie Channel subscription, and I can understand why: My mom had boxes and boxes of movies she had taped off The Movie Channel, and never watched any of them. Now that I'm a parent, I get it -- you're busy during the day, and when the kids finally go to sleep, you want to spend time with your spouse. If he/she doesn't want to watch Paris, Texas or Fitzcarraldo (two titles I remember from her collection), then you're out of luck.

Two other titles I remember from her collection were Breaker Morant and Phar Lap. I wanted to watch Breaker Morant as my first movie in this series, but instead I watched Phar Lap. The Australia section of the local video store had the latter but not the former. 

I could just go on chatting about Phar Lap, as I am wont to do in blog posts like this, but I'm going to hold myself to something I promised about a week ago: I am going to write a review of all movies I watch between now and the end of my so-called Movie Diet on April 27th (read more about that here).

So, here goes - the first review proper I have written in quite some time. Let's see if I can still do it.

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There's a reason films about great racehorses tend to be limited to biopics, and not stories about fictitious thoroughbreds. Inspirational sports stories about underdogs becoming champions are hard enough to believe even if they're true. If they're made up, they just seem like some screenwriter's flight of fancy. It's an advantage real sports have over fictional sports. You have to believe the real sports because they actually happened.

Phar Lap, the racehorse born in New Zealand and trained to run in Australia, is a particular example of one of those underdogs whose exploits really had to happen to be believed. He wasn't just bad to start out -- "lazy," according to trainer Harold Telford (Martin Vaughan) -- he went beyond bad and finished last in most, if not all, of his races. Miraculously, Telford kept working him, and today his body is preserved and on display in the Melbourne Museum. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

When first arriving on Australian shores in 1927, the wart-ridden young colt is described by his American owner (Ron Leibman) as somewhere between a sheep dog and a kangaroo. Nonetheless, Telford believes in his pedigree, and a good cop-bad cop relationship begins to get the horse into shape: Telford working the "laziness" out of him through sheer force, and Telford's strapper Tommy (Tom Burlinson) relating to him more gently in a way we would now consider "horse whispering." Telford initially fires Tommy when Tommy questions the vigor of Telford's training methods, but reluctantly has to ask him back when the horse quits eating as a protest to Tommy's sacking.

Well, the horse starts winning. And winning. And winning.

And here's where the underdog story develops in a way that's more interesting than just "bad horse makes good." Phar Lap's story becomes about business as much as about sport (that's how they say it in Australia, without the S), and it takes a turn for the unethical. How to bet effectively on the dominant athlete is a subject that ensnares not only his already venal owner, but the previously uncorruptible Telford, who has overstretched his commitment on a number of thus-far unproductive yearlings and is facing bankruptcy. A fascinating passage involves the methods used to protect Phar Lap in the run-up to his first Melbourne Cup, Australia's greatest race, when a betting fix could require the horse not to win -- or better yet, not to be alive.

Unfortunately, the structure of the film removes some of the suspense from this particular sequence, while also giving it a bit of extra gravitas. We find out in the opening minutes of the film that Phar Lap does indeed die under unusual circumstances -- in Menlo Park, California. The rest of the film is told in flashback. So we know the horse survives any attempts on his life prior to the Melbourne Cup -- but we also know that he ultimately does succumb to forces intent on destroying him. Being the best at something is, alas, not always the best for your health.

Phar Lap relies a tad too heavily on its inspirational score, and a mode of expression that we would call "cheesy" if the film were made today. In 1983, a little more of that stuff got a pass. Overall it's a pretty sturdy horse picture that gives a good flavor of the country that considered him one of its heroes.

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Okay. Well. It's a start. In my own defense, I wrote this while my son was trying to get me to play pirates. I might have liked to give it more thought and tweak it some, but if I set out to publish on Australia Day, I've really got to publish on Australia Day, don't I?

Next month: A movie that can't help but take itself a bit less seriously, or so I assume. BMX Bandits is Nicole Kidman's infamous feature debut, and it's available for streaming on Netflix for those of you who want to play along at home. 

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