How do you maintain tension in a sports movie when the audience already knows the outcome? That was the question facing writer/director Randall Wallace in his latest project, Secretariat (rated PG for mild language). He solved it by approaching the story through the life of Penny Chenery, a housewife who unexpectedly acquires a racehorse she believes has the potential to be the best that's ever run.
Wallace has a long history of making movies about characters of uncommon heroism. He wrote the screenplays for Braveheart and Pearl Harbor and was the writer and director of We Were Soldiers. While his previous work focused mostly on war heroes, Wallace said that the character of Penny Chenery (wonderfully played by Diane Lane) is not as far from such men as she might seem.
"In so many stories it's your enemies that oppose you," Wallace pointed out, "but in this case it was the people Penny Chenery was closest to who were telling her she couldn't do it, that she's only a housewife. . . . Sometimes that's the central battle of life. . . .
"Just like other forms of heroism, it is also a measure of heroism when someone can stand up and say, 'It would be really wonderful if you all liked me, but I'm not running a popularity contest, I'm running a life. And I'm going to be who I think God called me to be.'"
It's a kind of heroism Wallace himself employed when he was still a student at Duke Divinity School, when he chose to enter the movie business rather than full-time ministry.
"I think a minister can probably accomplish pretty much anything I could, but this is my calling," he explained. "I can tell you that Braveheart and some of the other films I've done have been purer messages of what I believe than what I could have preached from a pulpit. It's the reason I'm a storyteller instead of a minister."
And while there are no battles or self-sacrifice in it, Secretariattoo celebrates a concept Wallace said is at the heart of the Christian experience: "One of the themes of Secretariat is that there's joy in becoming what you were made to be. Christ says that He came so we could have life more fully. We were each made for something and only by doing that thing do we experience fullness."
The film's story isn't overtly spiritual, but the soundtrack along with some apt quotations from Job underline Wallace's worldview. It's the kind of cheerful, funny film that Disney built its reputation on, and there's nothing in it to keep you from seeing it with either your 88-year-old grandmother or your 8-year-old daughter. Even better, both are likely to enjoy it.
For more on the movie Secretariat ("When Disney was Disney") and writer/director Randall Wallace ("A different calling"), be sure to read the Oct. 23 issue of WORLD, which will be posted on WORLDmag.com Friday, Oct. 8.