First things first: For those who don’t know what a Phar Lap is (I didn’t), an explanation is in order. Phar Lap was the great Australian racehorse who trounced his competition in the years 1928-31. When he was brought to America in 1932, Phar Lap won his first race, then died – foul play was hinted. Phar Lap is the story of those years, from the purchase of the horse – a skinny colt with good blood lines, he cost about $800 – to his final trip to America.
The true story has all the elements for a good movie: the early, dispiriting years, followed by success because of faith and plenty of elaborate behind-the-scenes machinations (Phar Lap became so unbeatable that he was once the subject of an assassination attempt from a speeding car). Still, one may be forgiven for suspecting that the film takes its inspiration from racetrack movies as much as from historical record.
The characters include the clean-faced stableboy (Tom Burlinson) who really loves the horse the most; his sweet girlfriend (Georgia Carr); the miserly American owner (Ron Leibman); his classy, sympathetic wife (Judy Morris); and the tough trainer (Martin Vaughan) given to saying things like, “Don’t tell me I’m training that horse too hard – I think I know a thing or two about horses,” etc.
The pleasantly surprising thing about Phar Lap is that only the stableboy and his girl come off as horse-yarn stereotypes. The owner and the trainer turn out to be more complicated. The owner may be something of an uncouth lout, but he has his moments of grace.
And the trainer is torn between his pride – in developing Phar Lap at a time when nobody else had faith in the horse – and his need for money. To pay off his dreams of a horse-training empire, he must work Phar Lap – who becomes a reliable winner – until the gelding is in danger of burning out.
That the characters are something other than black-and-white is probably the work of playwright David Williamson, the screenwriter of Gallipoli, The Club, and The Year of Living Dangerously. Williamson’s intelligent script provides some villains, though, in the form of an Australian Racing Club which insists that Phar Lap carry extra weight to make the races closer.
Director Simon Wincer doesn’t instill much snap into the proceedings. It’s more of a handsome film than an exciting one. Cinematographer Russell Boyd, who shot Tender Mercies, has managed some impressive period photography.
Unfortunately, the film (the most expensive ever made in Australia) comes at a point of over-saturation in the genre of come-from-behind movies. I’ve just about had it with slow-motion replays of races won at the finish line, with reaction shots of spectators brushing away tears, all scored to a ripoff of the music from Chariots of Fire. Phar Lap doesn’t do any of this too badly, but we’ve seen this kind of thing one too many times.
First published in The Herald, April 1984
Wincer has had a long career (his last work was 2011’s The Cup, a horse-racing movie), with the notable miniseries Lonesome Dove included. Burlinson had been in The Man from Snowy River the year before this film came out; Judy Morris’s long acting career also includes writing the screenplays for Babe – Pig in the City and Happy Feet. Also in the cast is Gia Carides, who went on to a long career. This is the first day in a week of Australian films on this website, and there will be more horses.