Friday, November 8, 2013

Movie Review: International Velvet

International Velvet (1978)
(available on Amazon Instant for $2.99 rental)

This past weekend, I rewatched International Velvet, which is one of my top five favorite horse movies of all time. It's the sequel to National Velvet. The movie begins with Sarah Brown, the daughter of Velvet's younger brother Donald, who was orphaned and comes to live with her aunt in England. They turn out to have a love of horses in common, and Sarah trains up the Pie's last foal to become an eventing superstar, cleverly named Arizona Pie.

This is the kind of movie that does some things really, really right and other things really, really wrong. I rather adore it, for its spirit if nothing else. It captures beautifully the ambition and hard work and joy of horses, and it is a fitting - if sad - sequel to National Velvet in its continuation of Velvet's story.

The things it gets wrong are the usual small silly things: the Pie has transformed from the book's piebald gelding, and even from the movie's chestnut gelding, to a seal bay stallion. He also has to be at least 40, by the universe's internal chronology, and...yeah, no. Some of the details of horsekeeping are just dumb. The cinematic conceit of making everything faster - stronger - scarier in regard to horses holds true; there's one extended chase sequence in particular that would be insanely dangerous and probably kill both Sarah and Arizona. (It still works, though; it's frightening and maddening in equal measure as intended, and the bad guys get a particularly awful comeuppance.)

But oh, the things it gets right. Sarah is a bit of a stereotype, true, but she's the best kind of horse-crazy. Her relationship with Arizona is a little Black Stallion-y but it still works. The best part about her character is how terrible she is with people. In fact, she's not really very likeable. "I'm never going to be what people expect me to be," she confesses to an admiring boy at one point. "Don't feel badly. There's nobody else. It's just me."

The movie really gets eventing, right deep down, and it doesn't fall prey to the usual mistakes about the format of the sport that the handful of other movies about eventing do. In particular, the team selection bits are marvelous. There is a bit where the chef d'equipe explains the politics of team selection that is just perfect.

Possibly my very, very favorite thing about it is Velvet, and her adult life. Her relationship with John (Christopher Plummer in all his glory) is note-perfect in its characterization of a happy loving adult relationship. Her sadness and regret at the way her life turned out is poignant and painful. Remember her mother, who was afraid that swimming the Channel was the only big thing that would happen to her? Velvet, despite her protests, turned out much the same. After winning the Grand National, she stopped riding - she says she "lost her nerve" and later in talking about Sarah said, "All I hoped was, she wouldn't win too early, and afterwards have nowhere to go."

My second favorite thing? Anthony Hopkins as Captain J.R. Johnson, the British chef d'equipe, who basically steals the entire movie from everyone else. He gets all the best lines and all the best scenes. It might be my favorite role of his. Here are just a very few of his selected quotes:
"Oh. Well. We wouldn't exactly call that riding, would we? Staying on a horse, perhaps. Where did you learn to ride?...Oh, in the colonies, yes. Well, that explains it. You realize, of course, that they don't allow cowboys in the Olympics?" 
"No, no, no. Come on! Stop. Start again. This is dressage. It's meant to be like a ballet, Mr. Clark, not a barn dance, or like a pregnant Tom Mix. Don't ask me who Tom Mix was. It's all too long ago, and I can't remember. Now, once more and not with feeling. Please, spare me that." 
"Some of you may have come here with the impression that dressage is frightfully boring compared to the greater glories of the cross country event. That's because you all lack sophistication, amongst other things. 
Now, we come to the cross country event. The cross country event is considered by some, Miss Brown, to be an opportunity to display carefree abandon. This is a mistake for which I would cheerfully re-introduce capital punishment. This is a test of brains. And since horses are only marginally less stupid than some of the people who ride them, an observation which carries with it the experience of a lifetime, I would urge you not to sit on your brains, but to use them."
"Dressage in pouring rain is like dancing Swan Lake in clogs in a bog. The greater glory of the sport was somewhat obscured from view that day." 
Final warning: there is a scene on a plane's quite frankly really horrible. If you don't deal well with animal death, fast forward any of the times they're on the plane, ok?` I do, every time.

In short: absolutely worth it, both as a horse movie and as an eventing movie. We'll just pretend the scene on the plane didn't happen onscreen, and ignore the stupid final resolution of Sarah's storyline.


  1. Isn't it just amazing? It might be the best, most accurate movie about horse sport I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot.

    I'm going to try to do horse movie reviews each Friday for as long as I can keep it up. I certainly have no lack of movies to get through!

  2. Taaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaag.


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