September 10, 1984 12:00 PM

The most expensive Australian movie ever made, this is the true story of an ugly duckling who was a horse. So misbegotten and unpromising as a colt that even his name was an object of laughter (phar lap means “lightning” in Thai), he grew into a champion who astoundingly won 37 of his 51 races from 1928 to 1932 before dying under suspicious circumstances in the U.S. shortly after his first North American victory. Phar Lap is still a legend in Australia—as much for his mysterious fate as for his victories—and in this beautifully photographed film he gets the mythic treatment he deserves. The acting is fine throughout. Tom (The Man From Snowy River) Burlinson plays Tommy Woodcock, the stablehand who became Phar Lap’s de facto trainer. (The real Woodcock, now 78, served as technical adviser for the film and helped coach the show jumper Towering Inferno, who had never raced, to play Phar Lap.) Burlinson and the horse share an empathetic affection: Phar Lap literally rips the shirts off other stablehands who try to come near him. Martin Vaughan, a veteran Australian actor with a craggy, brooding face, convincingly plays the merciless trainer who overraced the horse to cover his own runaway debts. Ron (Norma Rae) Leibman portrays Phar Lap’s owner, showing flash and humor as a tough-talking, transplanted American who mixes relentless cynicism with a sort of grudging generosity. Director Simon Wincer, Snowy River’s executive producer, and cinematographer Russell (Gallipoli) Boyd fill the screen with slow-motion shots of Thoroughbreds galloping, manes flying, muscles rippling, hooves kicking up clumps of turf. That’s a treat, even if the pace does tend to lag a bit in the middle of the film. Like director Carroll Ballard’s 1980 Black Stallion, Phar Lap is a winner for audiences of all ages. (PG)

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