Odds-on favourite

Film - Philip Kerr applauds a sports thriller that harks back to more innocent times

The movie Seabiscuit is for those like me who tend to feel that "they don't make them like that any more" - because clearly, on the evidence of this excellent little film, they can and have done so, and the only wonder is that they don't do it more often. There are no comic-book characters, no big stars to hog the picture under the mistaken assumption that it's them we want to see, and no special effects; there is no flashy camerawork, and definitely no postmodern irony. All there is here is a good story and some excellent acting. It's enough to restore your faith in mainstream cinema.

Based on the bestselling book about the racehorse Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand, this movie from the writer/director Gary Ross (Big and Pleasantville) is a triumph of old-fashioned storytelling, an exciting sports thriller and a heart-warming re-creation of the Depression that is both informative - thanks to some nicely narrated documentary interludes - and moving.

Seventy years ago, Seabiscuit might have starred Clark Gable as the horse's go- getting owner Charles Howard, Gary Cooper as the laconic, horse-whispering trainer Tom Smith, and Jimmy Cagney as Red Pollard, the cocky but vulnerable jockey. Now that's a film I'd like to have seen, but I can't imagine it would have been better than this one, starring Jeff Bridges as Howard, Chris Cooper as Smith and Tobey Maguire as Pollard.

These are archetypal characters in an archetypal story, but these are archetypes in which one can take pleasure, and this film beats by several furlongs the 1949 movie The Story of Seabiscuit that starred Shirley Temple and Barry Fitzgerald as the racehorse's knowing Irish trainer. Indeed, I would not be at all surprised to see a few Oscar nominations coming the way of all three male actors, always assuming that the Academy can resolve its battle with judges over sending out videos and DVDs of contenders. (Recently, worried by piracy - or so it said - the Academy banned "screeners", which has left most Academy judges wondering how they're going to find the time to see all the films.)

As a movie, Seabiscuit is not so unlike John Irvin's 1983 movie Champions, which was the much-underrated story of Bob Champion (played by John Hurt), his fight against cancer and his subsequent ride to glory aboard Aldaniti in the Grand National in 1981. But it is with another Aintree horse, Red Rum, and his record three Grand National wins (1973, 1974 and 1977) that Seabiscuit's achievements and popularity can be compared. Red Rum was a small horse that recovered from pedalostitis to win his three Nationals. Flashy Arab nags might have galloped better, and Arkle was in a different class when he won three Gold Cups, but like Seabiscuit, Red Rum was a character horse that raced into the hearts of millions.

As you might imagine, Seabiscuit's story is one of the underdog triumphant. Undersized, overweight and lazy by nature, the horse was actually dumped by his first trainer and acquired by Howard and Smith who, played by Cooper in perhaps his best role ever, sees something when he meets the horse's eye - heart. The film follows Seabiscuit's genuinely inspiring rise to fame as he wins one victory after another. According to Hillenbrand's very readable book, the horse became so popular in America that, in 1938, it out-polled every human being on the planet including Roosevelt and Hitler as the year's biggest news-maker.

It would be easy to say that Seabiscuit is a very American story, for isn't this what the American dream is all about - the idea that the little guy can take on the big boys and win? But it is perhaps more interesting to reflect on how a movie's popularity is often a direct corollary of its time. If Seabiscuit had been released before 9/11, I doubt it would have done nearly so well (made for $86m, the film has already grossed more than $118m in the US alone); now one senses America feeling the need to hark back to more innocent times. Europe is less sentimental, and I suspect that the picture will not be as successful here. This would be a great shame, as it has plenty of what nearly every other film currently on release lacks: soul.

Even so, the film is not without mistakes: Seabiscuit's bronze statue is clearly visible on screen at the racecourse in Pimlico, and - one for film buffs only - in a 1938 news-reel the owner of War Admiral, Sea- biscuit's principal opponent, describes his horse as the greatest thing on four legs since Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, although Crosby and Hope did not team up until 1940 when they made Road to Singapore. But who knows that? And who would know that, in the 1930s, the United States flag had only 48 stars whereas the one flying at the Pimlico racetrack quite clearly has 50? Every horse is good for something, yes, but perhaps not every set decorator.

Seabiscuit (PG) is on general release

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Will we survive the winter?