Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

PHAR LAP (Australia, 1983) ***

Directed by Simon Wincer. Written by   David Williamson. Produced by John Sexton. Photography, Russell Boyd. Editing, Tony Paterson. Production design, Lawrence Eastwood. Music, Bruce Rowland. Cast: Tom Burlinson,  Richard Morgan, Robert Grubb, Simon Wells , Kelvyn Worth, Justin Ridley, Martin Vaughan,  Ron Leibman, et al. 107 minutes.
Warm, well-told, attention-keeping  story of Australian racehorse of late 20s-early 30s, a champion who apparently is still a legend in equine circles, and a household name in Australia. Phar Lap won 37 races in three years, died abruptly in 1932, in California, perhaps the victim of Mob interests that it menaced.  The film stresses faith and affection felt from the start by stable boy Tommy Woodcock (Tom Burlison) for a horse that seemed to be an unlikely champion.

The boy-horse-racing formula is sure-fire, but here it is buttressed here by truth and uncontaminated by goo or overstatement. Familiar elements of training, suspense, and thrilling victories are enhanced by good, offbeat touches: a main trainer who is not lovable or colorful; stuffy, uppercrust Anglos at the Jockey Club who discriminate  against a proletarian horse and its American-Jewish owner (Ron Leibman, very good) and  who  handicap Phar Lap increasingly, unfairly, and cruelly.

Phar Lap was the second feature by director Simon Wincer, who until then had worked in TV. His first movie, Snapshot, seems to be as obscure as they come. But Phar Lap turned out to be a success. Wincer had the good sense (or luck) to use as his cinematographer the very talented  Russell Boyd whose record already included such top films  as Picnic at Hanging Rock, The  Last Wave, Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Tender Mercies.

Depression-era sets, very good  but never gratuitously flashy camerawork, stunning races, interesting biped-to-quadruped relations , all add up to a gratifying film. Ten minutes were cut from the American print  for the sake of better suspense and clarity

After this movie, Simon Wincer did good work: the war picture The Lighthorsemen  (Australia);  Quigley Down Under (suspense with Tom Selleck in Australia); the TV series  Lonesome Dove  and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, the popular kidpic Free Willy and the entertaining Operation Dumbo Drop (reviewed in E. Jahiel's site). Some other features were weak-to-fair.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel