Nearly 13 years ago, in a piece in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Peter Andrews wrote, "The story of Phar Lap is the stuff they used to make movies out of." They shoot horse movies, don't they? Alas, never very well, and certainly not in this instance. Phar Lap, the dramatized version of the great Australian chestnut's brief life, is, alternately, too mushy and too dry; it's consistent only in its predictability. It tells, in altogether too linear a fashion, the tale of an ugly duckling who fills out into perhaps the best racehorse that ever lived, and then dies a mysterious death just as he's about to wow America as he had the antipodes. The movie is even dedicated to Phar Lap, and as bald a eulogy as it is, it may please the fans Down Under. Unfortunately, in racing parlance, Phar Lap isn't a good shipper, and American audiences are likely to be bored by the whole banal business.
The main failing of the film is that it chooses to concentrate on the bickering and everyday jealousies of the singularly unattractive people who surrounded the noble gelding. Phar Lap wasn't just another fast horse, and the film shouldn't have been conceived as just another horse opera. In fact, Phar Lap became a national treasure, and he's stuffed, under glass, for all to see in Melbourne. There are only two racehorses that have ever achieved the status of having a real "personality," Phar Lap and Dan Patch, the superb American pacer of the early 1900s (and of the 1949 film The Great Dan Patch). Both went far beyond being a mere horse—a Bucephalus, Pegasus or Man o' War—yet Phar Lap fails miserably to convey this about its subject. As far as we can tell from the movie, Australian fans merely found Phar Lap a vehicle on which to cash a bet, and when the Red Terror, as the horse was known, dies suddenly, in California, and we see the headlines back in Australia reading simply HE'S DEAD, we're startled by this sudden show of reverence. The story of Phar Lap is his stature not his speed.
But Phar Lap (the name means "lightning strike" in Javanese) surely was some kind of horseflesh—a "freak," as he was regularly labeled. His sire had won only one race; his dam had won none. His trainer, Harry Telford, was an undistinguished saddler, a cranky know-it-all who seldom viewed the Red Terror as anything but a meal ticket. Dave Davis, the American who owned Phar Lap, wasn't above a bit of larceny when it served his purpose—which led, on one occasion, to an attempt on Phar Lap's life. The Australian racing mahatmas, far from celebrating the luck that this extraordinary beast was theirs, were furious that the gelding wasn't the possessor of or owned by the proper bloodlines; for all practical purposes, they tried to ruin Phar Lap by giving him ridiculous handicaps. In the Melbourne Cup of 1931, he staggered the two miles home, out of the money, weighted down by 150 pounds.
After the Melbourne Cup, Davis shipped the Red Terror to North America, where, at the age of six, he won the first race of his life on dirt—and in record time—in the Agua Caliente Handicap, then the richest race in the world ($50,000 added). Hollywood stars poured down to Mexico to see their equine equivalent. A couple of weeks later, on April 5, 1932, as Phar Lap was being freshened near San Francisco, preparing to conquer the States, he suddenly died.
The Australians immediately decided that Yank gangsters were behind the deed, and this is the canard that the movie supports—although, of course, it never provides the slightest logical reason why the U.S. underworld might want to eighty-six the Red Terror. It is, after all, a damn sight more profitable to fix a race by getting to the jockeys than it is to kill off the favorite before the suckers can bet him. In fact, the evidence indicates that Phar Lap died because an obtuse nurseryman sprayed a lead arsenic insecticide on a windy day, and the spray carried to the grass where Phar Lap was grazing. But, of course, foreigners will never accept a boring reason like stupidity for Americans' actions when irrational conspiracies can be invented.
In any event, by far the best of Phar Lap is the photography by Russell Boyd, while the hackneyed script by David Williamson is the most disappointing—coming as it does from the man who has written such top-flight films as Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously. The acting in Phar Lap is better than the script deserves; notable are the fine performances of Ron Leibman as Davis and, in a smaller part, of Vincent Ball as a silkily venal racing official.
Phar Lap's only real buddy in the movie is Tommy Woodcock (who, at 78, was the film's adviser)—first the horse's groom and then, on the fateful American trip, his trainer. Woodcock is played, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, by Tom Burlinson in a manner that would make Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm seem like a Beirut terrorist. As for the title character, we are never told the name of the horse that plays Phar Lap so capably, so that we have a situation here where a horse movie is horsist.