"Phar Lap" (1983) Review
Everyone has a movie they unconditionally love.
I have a list of movies I unconditionally love, but we all have one movie we place above all others, a movie we tell our friends about, a movie that we beg our friends to see. For my Uncle Marc, that film is Phar Lap.
My Uncle Marc loves Phar Lap, and ever since my love of films became more prominent, every conversation with my Uncle Marc always started with the words, "Have you seen Phar Lap yet?" I'd laugh and tell him no, but eventually I looked into watching Phar Lap and found out that it has no DVD release in the U.S, only in Australia, its country of origin. But my Uncle Marc is persistent, and he managed to track down a copy of the film on VHS this year. Finally, after all of these years, I had no choice but to break down and watch Phar Lap and put a long running joke to rest once and for all.
One thing I want to put up as a disclaimer before going into Phar Lap is that I'm not the biggest fan of the "boy/girl and his/her horse" genre of film. The only movie in that vein I've enjoyed was Seabiscuit, so finding out that Phar Lap was also about a racehorse in the late 1920s/1930s was a step in the right direction. What ended up being kind of fascinating about Phar Lap though is that it's the clear spiritual predecessor to Seabiscuit in a lot of ways, both are films about an unlikely horse rising through the ranks against incredible odds. What sets apart Phar Lap though is that unlike Seabiscuit, Phar Lap has a scene where a group of men attempt a drive-by shooting on a horse, among other things.
Like a lot of Australian films related to American cousins, Phar Lap is the darker incarnation of the horse race movie, a film that's not just about the animal at its center, but the nasty politics that drive horse racing and the high stakes money that will drive people to downright evil lengths. It's a remarkable story of perseverance, made even more remarkable by it being a true story. Phar Lap was an Australian horse that won 37 races during its career, one of those races in America. He was considered a horse with no future in the sport, but ended up being a freak of nature that was practically unstoppable. Even handicaps imposed by racing associations had a hard time stopping the horse.
The politics of horse racing end up being Phar Lap's most interesting storyline. The horse race scenes are thrilling enough, but the in-fighting and strategy involved with booking races, forcing handicaps, and even international horse racing are far more interesting. Unless you're watching an animated film, you can't exactly count on the horse "acting" in a way that's going to make it more interesting than the humans on screen. Luckily, each of the actors does well with their roles, imbuing enough humanity and realism to keep the movie rolling.
The actor who stands out the most though is Ron Leibman as Dave Davis, the cynical American owner of Phar Lap. He's a funny but calculating character that keeps the film's energy up. The other standout comes in the form of Martin Vaughan as Harry Telford, Phar Lap's borderline cruel trainer. Telford's entire story could have been a movie on its own, a man so bolstered by his success with Phar Lap that he thought he could build an empire of race horses, only to miserably fail. He's the walking embodiment of the phrase "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions."
The film isn't all dark though, with Tom Burlinson as Tommy Woodcock to round out the film. He's a decent enough performer, but you really want his character to succeed. He's the good-hearted stable-hand who believes in Phar Lap more than anyone else, and seeing him win and lose is where most of the movie's emotional stakes come from. He has a weak sub-plot involving a woman he's falling in love with, but it's not a bad sub-plot either. It's just there in the background.
I don't want to judge the cinematography of the movie or its color palette due to the film being on VHS. That just doesn't feel fair, but there are some pretty beautiful shots here and there. The only thing I really dislike about Phar Lap is its music, which desperately wants to evoke a soundtrack like Chariots of Fire, but falls short. That music isn't enough to distract from the rest of the movie though, not even close.
I'm happy to honestly say that my Uncle Marc has finally been vindicated. I've seen Phar Lap, and it's a good film, and a deeper dive into the dark side of horse racing without forgetting to bring some heart along for the ride. For fans of the aforementioned "boy/girl and his/her horse" sub-genre, it's an obscure entry that's definitely worth checking out.