Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2004, Volume 24, No. 4
Copyright 2004 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Seabiscuit, 2003. Universal Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures, and Spyglass Entertainment. Directed by Gary Ross. Screenplay by Gary Ross, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand. Starring Tobey Macguire ("Red" Pollard), Jeff Bridges (Charles Howard), and Chris Cooper (Tom Smith). DVD released August 24, 2004.

Reviewed by Philippa Gates, Wilfrid Laurier University.

The film Seabiscuit, based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand, offers the inspiring real-life story of four individuals—Tom Smith, a washed-up trainer; Charles Howard, a broken-hearted entrepreneur; "Red" Pollard, a failed prize-fighter and jockey; and Seabiscuit, a bad-legged horse—whose paths cross during the Great Depression. The Depression witnessed the promise of modernity turning against American society: in the film, Howard loses his son to a motorcar accident; Smith's frontier vanishes with roads and barbed-wire fences bringing civilization to the once wild West; Pollard is abandoned by his displaced family at a make-shift racetrack at 16 years old; and Seabiscuit—small, unattractive and complacent in an era when winners are assumed to be tall, handsome and aggressive—is trained to lose in order to encourage "better" horses to win. Following the failures, false starts and triumphs of the foursome, the film illustrates that men can rise above adversity and find success—when they believe in each other.

Aspects of the film's story address disability explicitly: Pollard loses the sight in one eye in a fight and his impaired vision costs him more than one race. If his disability were made known to racing officials, he would be banned from racing; however, Howard and Smith let him ride Seabiscuit, despite his impairment, because of his bond with the horse. Later, Pollard shatters his leg in a riding accident and is told he may never walk again, let alone ride; similarly, Seabiscuit ruptures a tendon—an injury that would typically end a racehorse's career. Beating the odds, however, they return together to win the race that had eluded them—the Santa Anita Hundred-Grander. The film is a story of second chances. As Smith tells Howard: "Every horse is good for something.[...] You know, you don't throw a whole life away just 'cause he's banged up a little." And the film presents interpersonal relationships as the key to healing. As Pollard explains to Howard: "I was crippled for the rest of my life...I got better! [Seabiscuit] made me better. Hell! You made me better."

Rather than Pollard's disability being made the central focus of the story, the film offers the Depression, and its debilitating effect on American society, as a metaphor for Hillenbrand's own 16-year struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome. The story of the four heroes is intercut with documentary sequences of black and white images of the Depression and a voice-over by David McCullough (host of television's "The American Experience") that provide the historical backdrop to the story but also draw explicit parallels between the experience of the heroes and that of the country at large. This intercutting also illustrates why Seabiscuit became the icon he did: he was a hero for those left unemployed and displaced by the Depression. Seabiscuit was "the single biggest newsmaker of 1938—receiving more coverage than FDR, Hitler, or any other public figure" (www.seabiscuitonline.com). He was an underdog who became an American icon as "the little horse that could," as radio announcer "Tick Tock" McGlaughlin calls him.

The film, rather than follow Hollywood's conventional exploitative narrative of disability—following one person's struggle to "overcome" his/her disability to achieve success and, most often, to become more integrated into mainstream society—offers a subtler message: external circumstances can create an emotional, mental, or physical kind of inability that can affect anyone. Rather than representing "difference" in the film, disability is widespread and the norm, afflicting the whole of America during the early 1930s. In this way, the issue of disability is explored in a manner that may raise awareness with ableist audiences; however, it may prove too subtle a message and go unnoticed. Without the knowledge of Hillenbrand's own struggle, the metaphor of the Depression as a national chronic fatigue might be read as merely another testament to the endurance of America's national character.

The film also takes many liberties with aspects of this true story—from how Pollard came to lose his sight to the details of Seabiscuit's racing career; however, the film's producers no doubt felt that they had to reduce the scope of Hillenbrand's book and the complexities of a real-life story in order to heighten the drama. The appeal of the film is no doubt the final focus on winning the Santa Anita Handicap and the strength of the bond of the four protagonists—creating a climax that tugs at audience heartstrings. Then again, it wouldn't be a Hollywood story if it didn't, and after watching them struggle so hard, it is emotionally satisfying to see our four heroes end up in the winner's circle.


Hillenbrand, L. (2001). Seabiscuit: An American Legend. New York: Ballantine Books.

Official website for Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. (2004, May 15). www.seabiscuitonline.com.