Phar Lap is an Australian film about a race horse. I'm not a big horse fan myself, so I didn't exactly rush to see this film. When I did get around to it (it was showing just before a preview), Phar Lap turned out to be yet another tradition-of-quality style Australian film. For those unfamiliar with the term, "tradition of quality" was a phrase much bandied about in Hollywood in the thirties and forties, particularly in regard to the films of MGM, if memory serves. The phrase expressed a certain approach towards filmmaking characterized by lavish professionalism and stories which a mogul could boast of to women's groups. Films like Little Women, David Copperfield, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and Ah, Wilderness are good examples. Such films were often quite fine, but also lacked a certain adventurousness found in movies which were less concerned about whether they gave offense. Contrasting these films to The Maltese Falcon, Scarface, and Stagecoach, from the same period, should give you an idea of the distinction.
At any rate, Hollywood is no longer in the tradition-of-quality business, but Australia seems to be taking up the slack. There's a steady flow of pretty, uncontroversial period films coming up from Down Under, such as My Brilliant Career, We of the Never-Never, and now, Phar Lap.
Phar Lap is based on the true story of one of the greatest of all race horses. Phar Lap was born in New Zealand, and, despite promising ancestry, looked like a sure loser. His early training period and first few races gave hope of no better. Suddenly, though, he began winning and kept winning, despite tremendous odds. The Australian racing association kept burdening him with greater and greater handicap weights, to the point where it was feared that the weight would kill him. His owners raced him at almost every opportunity, giving him little time to rest. None the less, Phar Lap kept winning, and became one of the Australian public's great favorites. Eventually, bookmakers tired of losing money on Phar Lap even tried to kill him.
The story of Phar Lap is perhaps the best story to come out of horse racing, infinitely better than the wish fulfillment stuff propping up National Velvet and The Black Stallion. Never the less, Phar Lap, the film, never comes up to the quality of those films. The screenplay is constructed without inspiration (by David Williamson), and first time director Simon Wincer's debut is pallid. He manages a few good moments during the races, but otherwise the film is weakly helmed. The photography is pretty, the period detail (from the late twenties) is proper but unexceptional. The score is too reminiscent of other against-the-odds sports movies. A prerequisite for scoring this sort of film should be an affidavit that the composer hasn't ever seen either Rocky or Chariots of Fire.
One of the hallmarks of tradition-of-quality was high quality (though low risk) acting, and the Australians have built up a fine group of actors skilled in that style, several of whom are on hand for Phar Lap. Tom Burlinson (from The Man From Snowy River, a tradition-of-quality Australian western) is good as the stable boy whose love for Phar Lap is amply requited. I suggest that he make sure that his next acting assignment has nothing to do with horses, however, as he's on the way to being typecast in a role that isn't needed too often. Ron Leibman drops in from the States to play the slightly sleazy owner of the horse. His wife is the frequently seen Judy Morris, given little interesting to do. The best part in the picture is that of the horse's trainer, whose original dedication to Phar Lap was responsible for the eventual triumph, yet who never really cares for the horse and is willing to take chances with it to further his own plans. Martin Vaughan gets the film's acting honors for this role.
I've noticed that I mentioned a lot of other films in this review. That's because Phar Lap is rather reminiscent of many other films. It's a good enough entertainment which has some nice moments, but the filmmakers really seem just to be going through the paces. I can't picture any but the most devoted horse lovers feeling very strongly about this film. In the hands of one of Australia's many capable directors (Peter Weir, Fred Schepsi, two different George Millers, among others), Phar Lap might have been an unusually good film. As it is, Phar Lap is another movie best seen on the bottom half of a double feature or on cable.
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