"Phar Lap," the true story of the Australian stallion that was the Pegasus of Melbourne in the Depression era, has the naive charm of American films of the '30s. Sturdily constructed and as swiftly paced as the horse itself, "Phar Lap" is the Belmont Stakes in the shade of the billabong, and more than that -- it sensitively culls the fallout that occurs when ordinary people are struck with the force of greatness.
Arriving wart-ridden and scrawny on a ship from New Zealand, the colt debuts less than auspiciously; Dave Davis (Ron Leibman), the Jewish American expatriate businessman who has ponied up the original stake, wants to sell him, but is persuaded otherwise by the trainer, Harry Telford (Martin Vaughan). They chatter at each other about "bloodlines," "sire" and "dam" -- much of the appeal of "Phar Lap" stems from the sharp, unobtrusive way it evokes the world of the race track: its peculiar jargon, the fellowship of the stableboys, and the jockeys' bright carnival motley.
Phar Lap comes in dead last in his first race. But his career is saved by the love of a boy, Tommy Woodcock (Tom Burlinson), the horse's "strapper," who sleeps with him in his stall, feeds him sugar and teaches him how to come from behind and win.
Anyone who has seen the "Rocky" series can appreciate the advantage in such a movie of not having to write lines for the hero. Instead, Phar Lap becomes a sort of equine Rorschach blot for the people brought into contact with him. Trainer Telford finds fault in the horse's laziness, and exercises him mercilessly -- over the years, hard work has become for him the ultimate virtue, the one thing people can't take away from a man who has failed professionally and financially. For owner Davis, the horse is a way to get even with the swells in top hats who have excluded him from high society. And for the victims of the Depression, who throng to the race track, Phar Lap is a symbol of hope, a half-ton of sublimity decorating their impoverished lives.
Director Simon Wincer, who coproduced "The Man From Snowy River" (which in Australia was as big as "Star Wars"), has filmed "Phar Lap" with a brisk, quick-cutting style that keeps it from suffocating in its own corn; he's helped by cinematographer Russell Boyd ("My Brilliant Career," "Tender Mercies"), who mixes up his shots, and alternates gauzy interiors with vivid scenes of the race track and the Outback.
And Wincer has a real touch with actors -- his aggressive editing style never gives them enough piano wire to strike a false note. As Tommy Woodcock, Burlinson has a contagious innocence -- he's a better-looking Mickey Rooney. Vaughan's Telford is the very picture of Depression poverty -- beneath his slouch hat, the hollows of his underfed face come straight out of a Walker Evans photograph. And Leibman, the only American in the cast, gives an engagingly hammy performance as Dave Davis. He doesn't smile so much as draw the flesh back from his teeth in a death mask of insecurity, and when he brays, "I've had uddah faith in dis hawss from the beginning," it sounds as if he's learned Americanese from a dialect coach. The exaggeration of Leibman's performance, in contrast with these laconic Aussies, seems like an Australian's idea of what Americans are like.
"Phar Lap" tends to bog down toward the end -- the slow-motion montages of the horse charging along start to play like those "Bring Out Your Best" Budweiser ads. And in his race up the slopes of horsey Olympus, Phar Lap is waylaid by everything from a split hoof to the Syndicate; like "Amadeus," "Phar Lap" would have us believe that the whole world conspires against the extraordinary. Phiddle-phaddle. The great virtue of "Phar Lap" is that it keeps this theme in the background, as human hopes and fears tango to the beat of hoofs.