The documentary Dark Horse is all cliché and yet it’s OK.
Dark Horse, directed by Louise Osmond. At the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA
By Gerald Peary
When my first documentary feature was completed, my platitudinous mother-in-law congratulated me for “having followed my dream.” I balked at being so categorized. Skeptic me, I am allergic to “follow your dream” narratives, therefore wary in advance of a new feature documentary Dark Horse which—a red flag to snobby me—came out of nowhere to win an audience award at Sundance 2016. It’s the stuff of which “follow your dream” narratives are made of: the true-life tale of an unheralded horse which, against all odds, became a racetrack legend. Does that sound familiar? My father-in-law’s favorite film is Seabiscuit, precisely because it’s about an underdog horse which won’t quit, which becomes a winner, just what he feels he’s done running a little factory.
Back to Dark Horse, and I’m sure you’ve already figured it out. Dark Horse is all cliché and yet it’s OK. It’s sincere. It has a heart. It’s cheery and unpretentious and the cast of characters are ingenuous and appealing: the denizens of a working-class tavern in a nowhere Welsh coal-mining town, Cefn Fforest. Fifteen years ago, they pooled their limited money to sire a race horse. They purchased cheap a barely thoroughbred mother, Rewbell, who had raced twice, lost twice, who was “middle-aged, pretty, but rather chubby.” And with an odd disposition: “She’d rather run into a brick wall than jump a wall.” The absent father, Bien Bien, was way over in America but did have some credentials, several track victories, which explained the costliness of his sperm.
Though they never met, Rewbell and Bien Bien begat Dream Alliance, shortened to Dream. Barely pedigreed, almost a mongrel, he grew up in Cefn Ffores. “With gangly, spindly legs, from a Walt Disney movie,” said a male co-owner, Dream galloped about in a roped-off area in the grim, grey downtown. No Kentucky bluegrass for him, but also no attitude. He was as unspoiled as his blue-collar syndicate of co-owners, and as people-friendly as a big puppy. Everyone loved Dream, but could he run? A very good trainer took him on and slowly groomed him. But after a few months, the trainer thought he’d hit a ceiling. Dream was very cooperative, willing to do whatever was asked. His problem was that he was “not very fast.” That’s fatal in a racehorse.
But Dream was also stubborn and scrappy. And when he actually raced, Dream became competitive, the times he felt like it. “He’s a Welsh boy,” explained a female co-owner, “You can’t really trust him.” In a proper mood, he could place or show with seeming ease, and one day it all came together. It was Christmas in Whales for his delighted owners when Dream triumphed at the prestigious Welsh National.
It doesn’t take a Marxist to enjoy the working people’s victory at the track over the well-bred horses of the rich stiffs, with their House of Lords demeanors and bowler hats. Our heroes celebrated in the style they knew best: with drinks at their favorite local haunt and “steak and chips” for all.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.