Four-legged actors of the equine variety have been Hollywood stars since the earliest days of movie-making. In the silent era, cowboy star Tom Mix shared equal billing with Tony the Wonder Horse. Singing cowpoke Roy Rogers often rode Trigger while warbling. And a breathtakingly lovely 12-year-old named Elizabeth Taylor rode a steed named Pie to stardom in 1944’s “National Velvet.”
As steady as the drum of hoofbeats during a cavalry charge, filmmakers continue to crank out movies about fictional horses, many aimed at younger viewers. “Black Beauty” alone has been made and remade more than a half dozen times since the early 1900s.
There are multiple websites with pages and pages devoted to recalling and debating the merits of various horse movies past — though nary a one mentions “Equus.”
In more recent years, the fortunes of real life race horses have been chronicled in 1983’s “Phar Lap,” 2003’s “Seabiscuit” and 2004’s “Hidalgo” (though many contended the last was more fictional than real).
And there are more to come. Steven Spielberg’s next film is “War Horse,” the tear-inducing tale of a British horse and its farmboy owner, both of whom go off to fight in WWI.
(Personal aside: though I’ve never seen it, I’ll always have a fond spot for 1991’s “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken,” a sappy tale about a teenage girl who rides performing horses as they dive off a high perch into water in Atlantic City. I still laugh when I recall that a friend went to see it the day after a wrenching breakup with a boyfriend. She sobbed and sniffled loudly throughout. A young girl in the audience whispered to her father, “Daddy, why is that lady crying?” “Honey,” her father replied, though he obviously knew better, “I guess she’s just afraid the horse doesn’t know how to swim.”)
Disney’s new “Secretariat” is more ambitious than most horse movies. It tells the story of how Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane), a Denver housewife, took over her father’s foundering Virginia horse farm and bet the farm, literally, on a thoroughbred colt she lovingly raised named Big Red.
The horse, running under the nom de track of Secretariat, went on to win the Triple Crown in 1973, one of only 11 horses to do so in history. The speed records he set still stand.
Though the champion race horse gets his name in the title, the movie’s real hero is Tweedy and her journey, which parallels Secretariat’s rise. (The real life Tweedy, now 88, can be glimpsed among the fans watching a race during the movie and is spotlighted again in the closing credits.)
When the film begins, she is an upper-middle-class housewife who spends her time cooking, cleaning and making life comfortable for her lawyer husband (Dylan Walsh) and four kids. When her mother dies and then her father (Scott Glenn) not long afterward, Tweedy begins dividing her time between her family in Colorado and the horse operation in Virginia.
The film is careful to show the conflicts and stress this dual existence causes, though – obvious-spoiler alert — all ends happily. There’s even a sketchy subplot about a teenage daughter’s involvement in anti-war protests, apparently to show that both mother and daughter believe in standing up for what you believe in and sticking with your convictions.
Directed with workman-like competence by Randall Wallace (“We Were Soldiers”), “Secretariat” has three things going for it besides its can’t-fail-to-inspire story. The first is Lane, appealingly steely as Tweedy, despite being asked to stare meaningfully into the horses eyes several times. She creates a believably determined woman who uses humor and charm to overcome the often chauvinistic world of horseracing.
The second is an amusingly showy comic turn by John Malkovich as Lucien Lauren, the loudly dressed, French-Canadian trainer whom Tweedy convinces to come out of retirement to guide Secretariat.
And, finally, the horse-racing scenes are sensational, full of movement and immediacy, putting viewers right in there among the giant, sweating beasts as they gallop swiftly around the track.
There are other movies out there now that are smarter (“The Social Network”), more fun (the French sex comedy, “Heartbreaker”), more loaded with action (“The Town”) or achingly grown-up melancholia (“Jack Goes Boating”), but you can’t schlep the kids and the great-grandma to any of them.
With “Secretariat,” you can load them all into the SUV without a worry. It’s a sports movie, a horse movie, an inspirational true-life tale and a feminist consciousness-raising exercise all rolled into one predictable but nonetheless appealing package for all ages.
Which makes “Secretariat,” by default, almost as much a winner as its hard-running namesake.