The Story of Seabiscuit was released in 1949, only two years after the great racehorse died. It is the story of his life – sort of. His son Sea Sovereign portrays him. Shirley Temple co-stars. The former child star was a young woman by then, and The Story of Seabiscuit was the second to last movie she ever made.
The real Seabiscuit is also in the movie. It includes archival footage of two of his races. The Santa Anita Handicap of 1938, a photo finish that Seabiscuit lost to Stagehand. Also the famous 1938 match race that he won against that year’s Triple Crown winner War Admiral. The race footage is the very best reason to watch the movie. Well, aside from also seeing his son Sea Sovereign, it’s the only reason.
Fiddling with the real story of Seabiscuit
While the movie portrays Seabiscuit’s career fairly accurately, it takes a lot of licence with the people around him. Owner Charles Howard and jockey George Woolf are portrayed in the movie. But fictional characters take the place of his trainer, Tom Smith, and regular jockey, Red Pollard.
His trainer in the movie, the man who recognizes his potential, is Shawn O’Hara, played by Barry Fitzgerald. O’Hara arrives in the United States from Ireland accompanied by his niece Margaret, played by Shirley Temple. Seabiscuit’s jockey is called Ted Knowles, played by Lon McCallister. He falls in love with Margaret but there is conflict. It’s quite painful to watch.
Very painful to watch is derogatory stereotyping of African-American and Chinese characters – indeed Irish too. It starts very early in the movie and can put you right off watching any more. Also hard to watch is a discussion between nurse Margaret and jockey Ted about jobs for men and women. So be warned: pretty much every insulting portrayal of anyone is in here.
But the race footage! When the picture goes from Technicolor to black and white, you’re about to see the real races. Then you see the real tracks with the real horses and the actual crowds. Interwoven with the historical footage are shots of the actors to move the story along. Still, it’s spine-tingling to see the real horses in action. And, of course, to watch Sea Sovereign up close throughout the movie.
This movie makes you ask yourself questions about the nature of storytelling. Why was Seabiscuit’s well-known and real-life rags to riches story fictionalized in some ways and not others? Did some of the real people refuse to allow the movie to use their names? What did movie viewers think of this bastardization of a story many of them knew? It had all happened only a decade earlier.