PHAR LAP" is "Rocky" for horses. But instead of an Italian stallion, it's an Australian gelding who goes from long shot to legend. It's a well-meant, if inconsistent biography, with enough soft-focus photography to make it "Chariots of Fodder."
Phar Lap won the hearts of the Australian working class during the Depression. He was a miracle when they needed a miracle, living proof that the odds could be beaten. And Phar Lap faced many odds.
In the film, the chestnut colt arrives from New Zealand, an emaciated thing, ignominiously lowered off the ship in a sling. Warts and boils disfigure his sad face and he hasn't the energy for spirit. But his spirit is enormous and so is his heart, near to bursting.
His trainer, a sour, broken spendthrift named Harry Telford, nearly kills the animal, whipping him over the dunehis fragile horse's legs deep in the slippery sand. Only the cinematography, slow and golden, is good to him. Telford, villainously portrayed by Australian Martin Vaughan, is loathsome.
And so is owner Dave Davis, a greedy and dishonest businessman played by American Ron Leibman, whose betting practices put the horse's life in danger. Leibman's convincingly odious, too. And the horse, as writer David Williamson surely planned it, becomes the central figure in a morality play.
Phar Lap is innocence and freedom, a creature who won't run from fear or for money. Love is another matter. His stableboy Tommy Woodcock offers that and a pocketful of sugar cubes and also gives him a taste for victory, when he teaches him to run from behind.
Woodcock is artfully played by Tom Burlinson, the personable young star of "The Man From Snowy River," another tale of the horse in Australian history. And James Steele is feisty jockey Jim Pike who rides Phar Lap to his first victory, after he has run dead last in his first four races.
To his fans, Phar Lap is the equal of Man of War, winning 37 races in three years. Bookies fear he'll ruin them, and nearly shoot him before the Melbourne Cup. The aristocrats of the Racing Club handicap him with unfair weights. His keepers race him, no matter that he is sick and hurting. But the big red races on; even when his hoof is cracked and bleeding, he races on.
Sometimes truth is hard to take. And "Phar Lap," undoubtedly authentic, would have been more satisfying had the characters been more balanced.
Further, director Simon Wincer (producer of "Snowy River") hasn't the horse sense to leave well enough alone. Show a human a race, and he just naturally breathes quicker. But Wincer and his editors never let the race be won. They pull away and pull away for reactions in the crowd. Sure, he had to make crosscuts, but incessantly?
Wincer's sense of drama is so far off that even death doesn't make you cry. When a horse s on screen (unless of course it's the famous Mr. Ed), the Kleenexes on the floor should outnumber the Milk Dud boxes. Here the Duds win, place and show.
PHAR LAP -- At area theaters.