Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Long the epitome of the perfect 'creative' movie to show budding cinema students, The Rocking
Horse Winner was once the film used to demonstrate how literary art is adapted to
the screen. As compact and focused as is the original short story, it is a puzzling and thoroughly
sinister exercise in film technique.
The Grahame family lives above its means, with wife Hester (Valerie Hobson)
contemptously refusing to curb her spending, and expecting reluctant husband Richard (Hugh Sinclair) to somehow
find a better job to come up with the cash. Hence they are always in dept to her brother
Oscar (Ronald Squire), who threatens to cut off his generosity. Young Paul (John Howard Davies)
becomes obsessed with the desire to be 'lucky' and thus get more money to rescue his mother
from her monetary worries; together with handyman Bassett (John Mills) he begins betting on races,
finding the winners through inspirations gathered while furiously riding a toy rocking horse.
Voices constantly urging that 'there must be more money' bedevil Paul, whose endless riding becomes
an all-enveloping activity, and soon he is amassing a secret fortune - but carrying the weight of the world
on his shoulders.
The Rocking Horse Winner was produced by John Mills, who acts a key role but doesn't
dominate this disturbing show. It's as controlled and civilized as a movie can get, but the cast
to enliven the barely-sketched characters from the very short story. Mills is responsible and
concerned, a member of the servant class who takes his station seriously. Valerie Hobson, still
beautiful but in a completely different temper from The Bride of Frankenstein, has the
best part, as the society wife who resents all attempts to make her live in fiscal
reality. Her husband is more of a non-entity, who blames her for all the extravagance, but doesn't
seem to be capable of taking charge on his own.
Ronald Squire, the uncle who repeatedly bails
his sister out, only to be criticized for it, is usually seen in stuffy businessman roles, but
here has a nice character arc, from reserved hostility to awe at the amazing gambling talent of
young John Howard Davies. For his part, the child actor looks too old to be eleven but plays the
role well. He's the kind of overly-earnest sheltered kid who takes things far too literally and
innocently causes havoc in things like Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol.
There's a fantastic element to The Rocking Horse Winner that's necessary to keep the show
rolling but, at least in the film version, obscures what has to be the author's social comment.
Desperate to rescue the family, young Paul engages in furious bouts of horse-riding that he's
convinced tell him the names of track winners; meanwhile, the house itself haunts him with the
call, "There must be more money". 1
The standard interpretation of both the story and the film is that Lawrence is decrying the inverted
ethics of the Bourgeoisie that place a certain level of conspicuous consumption as a birthright,
and then do whatever is necessary to maintain that level.
Mrs. Grahame first blames her husband, and then finds elaborate semantic dodges to blame her own
brother, whose generosity is the only thing keeping them afloat. Mr. Grahame protests, but there's
always another party to go to and appearances to keep up; barely involved in his own family,
father just doesn't care. The key scene occurs when Mrs. Grahame goes to a squalid street to bicker
with a horrid pawn shop dealer (a rather shaky un-PC characterization) to rescue herself from
humiliation at the hands of a bailiff. It's every nightmare she can imagine rolled into one - having
to talk as an equal with lowly civil servants and usurers - having dirty street kids put their
hands on her. In a different kind of movie, Mrs. Grahame would soon be planning to murder her
kindly brother, to get her hands on that Money There Must Be More Of.
But young Paul does care, with the intensity only a naive child can summon. He works to the logical
conclusion that if luck alone can save the family, it's his duty to be lucky. He earns every cent
won by his 'magic' horse-riding, in sweat and anxiety. Young Paul has the weight of an entire
social class on his shoulders, even though he's unaware of a class structure - servant Bassett
just 'is'. As his mother doesn't know where the sudden influx of cash comes from (and doesn't
care), Paul has to keep winning at ever-higher stakes. Eventually the strain is too much.
Although a small part of the whole, the riding sequences in The Rocking Horse Winner are
often quoted as highly creative to film students, using cutting, point of view and
distorted sets to create a madly rocking montage. With its fevered music score, the film
resembles a missing segment from Dead of Night; and plays like an extended Twilight Zone
episode, except without a host to tell us what the moral is. Like most of the talent from Dead of
Night, able director Anthony Pelissier has remained relatively obscure. Or did producer
Mills dictate much of the film?
Modern viewers who expect movies like this to lead to multiple murder or ghosts coming out of the
walls are going to be disappointed, but The Rocking Horse Winner remains a modest classic
from the 'quiet but distinguished' school of English filmmaking.
Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of The Rocking Horse Winner is a clear and sparkling transfer
of a film that used to be seen here in mushy 16mm prints. It hasn't been around in a while, so
there'll be a sizeable curiosity for it, that the disc won't disappoint. The picture is unrestored but
intact with very little marking or damage. The sound is the tiniest bit crunchy-sounding, which prompted
Savant to reach for the closed captions or subtitles, but there weren't any.
The extras make the disc a surefire educational tool. First, the insert booklet contains the entire
short story. There's also a radio version of the story read by John Shea. Audio excerpts from
a chamber opera, and a 20 minute Pixelvision short film by Michael Almereyda are included as well.
The short subject is a nice introduction to the Pixelvision mini-format, a kiddie toy video camera
with very limited resolution.
The elaborate trimmings on this disc probably account for its top-end price. HVe is clearly taking
great pains to present its titles in an intelligent framework of extras; this release boosts Home
Vision to the level of its cousin company Criterion.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Rocking Horse Winner rates:
Video: Very Good
Supplements: short film, opera excerpts, radio broadcast, text of short story
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: September 21, 2002
1. Hollywood has its own version of "There must be more money" - it must
be whispered around the halls of studios, every time the decision is made to propogate yet another
series sequel to some lame franchise. Michael Myers has just pulled in another 200 million ... soon the
wheels will start to turn to make Austin Powers vs. HornyDude or whatever.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson