Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Ron Davis.
We have had feature dramas immortalising the lives and triumphs of famous underdog race horses, such as Australia’s own Phar Lap, and American champions Seabiscuit and Secretariat. Harry & Snowman is another true underdog story, but this wonderful film explores the almost inseparable bond of friendship that developed between a man and his horse. This is a moving and revealing documentary from filmmaker Ron Davis, who has previously explored the world of beauty pageants in Pageant and Miss You Can Do It.
Snowman wasn’t any old horse – a champion showjumper, he won the sport’s coveted triple crown twice in the 1950s and was inducted into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame in 1992.
Snowman was a former Amish ploughhorse that was rescued from the slaughterhouse by one Harry de Leyer for the princely sum of $80 in 1956. De Leyer was a Dutch immigrant who came to America with his wife following World War II. He became a riding instructor at the elite Knox School for girls on Long Island. He bought Snowman, which became almost a part of the family. But de Leyer only recognised the horse’s showjumping potential after he had sold him to a local vet. Snowman kept leaping over fences and making his way back to Harry’s farm.
Together the man and the horse captured the imagination of the American people during the late 50s and early 60s. Snowman dominated the showjumping world for many years, beating many horses specifically trained and bred for the sport. He even jumped in Madison Square Garden championships in front of an audience that included film stars like Elizabeth Taylor and politicians like JFK. The pair even travelled to overseas competitions in places as far afield as Sweden. Snowman retired from competition in 1966 and died in 1974 at the age of 26.
And even at the age of 86 de Leyer is still active as a trainer at riding schools and is known reverentially as “the galloping grandfather”. He talks fairly candidly about his past, and gives us some personal insights into his life and that of his family and his eight children. We get a strong sense of his devotion to Snowman. But we even learn how he and his family used to hide Jewish refugees from the Nazis. De Leyer was a devoted family man, but obviously there were a few sacrifices along the way.
His daughter Harriet makes that candid admission that while Harry’s children were encouraged to develop their horsemanship, they were never allowed to surpass their father. And de Leyer’s wife blamed Harry for a riding accident that left one of his daughters in a coma for six weeks, a mishap that ultimately lead to the breakdown of their marriage. The film does gloss over some of these personal family troubles, and Davis only hints at some of the sacrifices made along the way, but he does capture the drive, ambition and passion Harry had for show jumping.
Davis has assembled a wealth of rarely seen archival footage that captures Snowman at his peak. There are also some 1200 photographs, including some from Life magazine as well as intimate family photographs and home movie footage.
At the heart of the story though is the friendship that developed between Harry and Snowman. It was a friendship that transformed both of their lives. The story is being developed into a narrative feature by MGM and based on Elizabeth Letts’ nonfiction book The Eighty Dollar Champion.
But it is the final shot of the film that may cause audiences to tear up a little. We see Harry standing reflectively beside the tombstone for his beloved horse. “He was my friend,” he says simply.