Racing: Don't let the facts get in the way of a sporting tale brimming with romance

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The Independent Online

A couple of years ago I came across one of those books which, in publishers' parlance, you can't put down. Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand is the tale of a racehorse that came out of nowhere to capture millions of hearts during one of the worst periods in American history, the Great Depression.

The movie, premiered in London earlier this week, based, as they say, on a "true story", will shortly go on general release, and it is my intention to catch up with it at the first available opportunity.

It will be interesting to see how well Seabiscuit transfers to the big screen, whether it matches the box-office success already achieved in the United States, where it broke through the resistance normally held out against sports films on both sides of the Atlantic.

This was the subject of conversations I fell into at Cheltenham racecourse this week when attending the launch of Henrietta Knight's lovingly crafted book about her great chaser Best Mate, a remarkable effort since it took less than four months to write and was put down mostly in longhand - "I wouldn't know how to switch on a computer and I can't type" - before the Sunday Times sportswriter Andrew Longmore applied the finishing touches.

The day belonged to Henrietta and her rumbustious husband, the former ace jump jockey Terry Biddlecombe, but inevitably talk turned to the filming of Seabiscuit, which was favourably reviewed on television by Jonathan Ross although without any sure-fire conviction that will appeal to a wider audience.

Some of those present, including hardbitten members of the racing fraternity, regarded the production with a degree of scepticism, mainly on the grounds that truths about sporting history - history generally - are tailored on film to suit the public's imagination.

Apparently, for example, the final race of Seabiscuit's astonishing career, his 1940 triumph in the Santa Anita Handicap, takes a form so wildly removed from fact that on hearing of it a friend, a devoted racing fan, immediately made up his mind to give the movie a miss.

Seeing things in a different light is not an unfamiliar experience to film directors, though it is rarely mentioned by critics and, odder still, seems never to be anticipated by people whose minds are more on reality than romance. Consequently, some films with a sporting theme, and about which high hopes are held, flop, while others unexpectedly take off.

Shortly before a contest between Muhammad Ali and Earnie Shavers in September 1977, I was invited to a private showing of Rocky, which was loosely based on Chuck Wepner, a beer salesman and journeyman heavyweight who was lifted out of obscurity to challenge Ali for the title. Since it used up every imaginable boxing cliche, nobody gave Rocky much of a chance, but the film that launched Sylvester Stallone's career took off like a rocket, spawning four successful sequels.

The rule in this, and a hard rule indeed for film critics and sports experts, seems to be one that lays aside faults in technical detail and the embellishment of historical fact. Some years ago, a Hungarian-made film, shot in black and white, faithfully recorded the fate that befell a football team made up of prisoners of war who defeated one representing their German captors. They were gunned down on the field. Having made no impression in its original form, the film was later remade by John Huston as Escape to Victory, a corny but fairly successful effort that featured Sylvester Stallone, Pele and Bobby Moore.

A personal point of view, one nobody is obliged to share, is that sports films are at their best when they contain the powerful element of nostalgia. Unquestionably, this was an engaging reason for the success of Chariots of Fire, which apart from being a box office smash won a clutch of deserved Oscars.

It would take a pretty bleak soul not to be charmed by Field of Dreams and The Legend of Bagger Vance, classics of film fiction relating to past heroes of baseball and golf. The penultimate scene in The Natural, based on Bernard Malamud's novel, sees the hero, played by Robert Redford, symbolically smash a series-winning home run that explodes a bank of floodlights.

I asked one of my American friends whether baseball was played with lights during the late 1930s. "Does that really matter?" he replied.

I don't think it really matters that Seabiscuit doesn't hold entirely true to Hillenbrand's compelling narrative. Certainly not enough to justify tetchy mutters of indignation.