Christian worldview eyes a great movie: Secretariat

Hast thou given the horse strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?

Canst thou make him afraid as a grasshopper? The glory of his nostrils is terrible.

He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength; he goeth on to meet the armed men.

He mocketh at fear, and is not affrighted; neither turneth he back from the sword.

The quiver rattleth against him, the glittering spear and the shield.

He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage; neither believeth he that it is the sound of the trumpet. – Job 39:19-24

It is that passage from Job that serves as the opening to the best movie of the year: “Secretariat.” Christians have come to expect little in the way of wholesome, family entertainment from Hollywood, but when Tinsel Town liberals start lobbing literary bombs at each other over a flick, something good must be in the offing. Such is the case with this cinematic masterpiece and the first wave of film critic reviews.

When Salon.com, the webzine of limousine liberals a.k.a., the oft-labeled “upper crust intelligentsia,” gets crossways with the iconic Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert; the brouhaha is worth noting. To say that Salon film critic Andrew O’Hehir and Ebert do not see eye-to-eye over this magnificent Disney film is an understatement.

“Secretariat” chronicles the spectacular journey of the 1973 Triple Crown winner. Housewife and mother Penny Chenery (Diane Lane ) agrees to take over her ailing father’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables, despite her lack of horse-racing knowledge. Against all odds, Chenery – with the help of veteran trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich) – manages to navigate the male-dominated business, ultimately fostering the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years and arguably the greatest racehorse of all time. The film is skillfully directed by Randall Wallace (he directed “When We Were Soldiers” and wrote “Braveheart,” and “Pearl Harbor”) who grew up a Southern Baptist before graduating from Duke University. Its screenplay was written by Mike Rich based on the novel about Secretariat by long-time Sports Illustrated horse racing reporter William Nack.

“No role in Mike Rich’s screenplay is overwritten, or tries to explain too much,” Ebert wrote in his review. “Like ‘The Social Network,’ another contender for year-end awards, it has supreme confidence in its story and faith that we will find it fascinating. This is one of the year’s best films.”

I agree, but some in Hollywood have called parts of Secretariat’s script “sappy,” a sure-fired hint that it is tastefully written. There is no sex, foul language, violence or even promotion of gambling. This is a family film at its finest. In fact, I can only recall one vague reference to gambling that children would not even interpret as such. It seems Wallace and Rich went to great lengths to make sure we stay focused on the horse and Chenery, who is an inspiration to all – especially to women. Take your little girls to see this uplifting film and they will see what determination, loyalty and hard work will produce.

But Salon’s O’Hehir disagrees, dispensing considerable vitriol in his review, obviously miffed by the Christian references that seem to permeate this movie.

“(T)he welcoming glow that imbues every corner of this nostalgic horse-racing yarn with rich, lambent color comes from within, as if the movie itself is ablaze with its own crazy sense of purpose,” O’Hehir writes. “(Or as if someone just off-screen were burning a cross on the lawn.) I enjoyed it immensely, flat-footed dialogue and implausible situations and all. Which doesn’t stop me from believing that in its totality ‘Secretariat’ is a work of creepy, half-hilarious master-race propaganda.”

“(I)t’s clear that ‘Secretariat’ was constructed and marketed with at least one eye on the conservative Christian audiences who embraced ‘The Blind Side.’ The film opens with a voice-over passage from the Book of Job and ends with a hymn. Wallace, is one of mainstream Hollywood’s few prominent Christians, and has spoken openly about his faith and his desire to make movies that appeal to people with middle-American values,” O’Hehir writes.

“(I)t’s legitimate to wonder exactly what Christian-friendly and ‘middle-American’ inspirational values are being conveyed here, or whether they’re just providing cover for some fairly ordinary right-wing ideology and xenophobia.”

O’Hehir went on to compare Wallace with Adolf Hitler’s videographer. His whole review was absolute trash. Not only does his rant give us a sense of the utter contempt Hollywood has for Christians, but especially for one in their midst like Wallace. To his credit, Ebert, in part because of his lifetime friendship with Nack, went off like a Roman candle on O’Hehir. O’Hehir has since responded to Ebert. I think you get the picture. I do not want the spat between two liberals to detract from this significant film.

I could not help but wonder if Wallace was trying to tell us more than just the story of the greatest horse who has ever lived and the gutsy lady who owned – and loved – him. From start to finish, Wallace seemed to be using Secretariat in a symbolic way for a much deeper message. As a Christian, I interpreted some of it as Wallace pointing us to Jesus. Just as Secretariat saved the Chenery farm from the bondage of debt and the ever-present federal taxman, so Jesus saved the world from the bondage of ever-present sin.

O’Hehir clearly sensed something similar. “I accused the film of concealing – or embodying, that’s a better word – an ideological worldview that is never made explicit but is present in every frame,” he wrote in his response to Ebert’s criticism of his review.

God is invoked at the start of the film and at the end, making me think of “the Alpha and the Omega” (see Rev. 1:8). In between there are several lines in the script that appear to make reference to Scripture. Chenery talks about “running the race” of life “well” (1 Cor. 9:24). There is a scene where Secretariat is training for a race, galloping down the track with thunderclouds behind him when you hear Chenery’s voice say, “He knows what to do when the trumpet sounds.” Who else can you think of Who knows what to do when the trumpet sounds? If you can’t, see
1 Cor. 15:52.

Then there are other subtleties like when Secretariat is born in a hay-filled stall, conjuring images of a manger as those looking on – like wise men – express wonder at how quickly the colt stood on its own. In another scene Chenery rubs Secretariat’s face, her hands running up and down his head as if to purposely draw attention to a sliver of white on the chestnut-colored colt that appears to look like a cross. It made me think of Mary and the affection she displayed toward baby Jesus in a hay-filled barn. Then there is a scene where groomer Eddie Sweat leads Secretariat onto the track for a race before joining excited fans along the race track railing. Just before Secretariat bursts from the gate Sweat yells to those within earshot, “Ya’ll gonna see something ya’ll ain’t never seen before!” I am sure witnesses felt the same way when Jesus raised Lazarus and when the disciples watched Christ ascend into Heaven.

Not all the Christian references by Wallace were subtle. The two mentions of God, the Job 39 passage at the start of the film and not one, but two instances where Wallace gives us the 1969 recording of the Edwin Hawkins Singers rendition of the 19th century spiritual “Oh Happy Day.” A song that says, “Oh happy day, when Jesus washed, my sins away” is anything but subtle. Even Rush Limbaugh, who has seen the movie, was predictably annoyed at O’Hehir’s tirade and couldn’t resist playing the original recording by the Hawkins singers on his popular radio show.

“Secretariat” is a great movie. I admit to be excited about it, in part, because I was 19 years old and an eyewitness to his greatness. He is most deserving of his fame and this honor and I am so happy that we have at least one Christian brother in Hollywood like Wallace, who is putting his movie-making colleagues to shame by making wholesome family films.

Go see for yourself. Take your kids. Then come home, pop some corn, make hot chocolate with marshmallows and talk about it. It would be so perfect, if in the background you played on your stereo the Erwin Hawkins Singers joyfully crooning:

“Oh happy day (oh happy day) …

“Oh happy day (oh happy day) …

“when Jesus washed (when Jesus washed) …

“oh yes He washed (oh yes He washed) …

“my sins away (my sins away) …

“He taught me how …

“to watch … watch and pray …

“and sing rejoi-cing everyday …

“Oh happy day!”

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4 Responses to Christian worldview eyes a great movie: Secretariat

  1. bbprof says:

    Don:

    Nice review. My wife and I loved the movie. I read the Salon article and was inspired to write my own take on the movie.

    Bill Borst

  2. Dorothy Schultz says:

    My brother & I decided to see Secretariat after reading your recommendation. It

    was terrific.

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