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Playing the Ponies
Remind Me


There are so many movies about plucky young girls and their horses that only the most famous such as National Velvet (1944) are usually the best remembered, but on its own terms, Sylvester (1985) turns out to be fairly engaging for fans of horse stories, even within the rather tired formula of the sub-genre.

Much of the credit for that goes to Melissa Gilbert, making her motion picture debut after several years on the popular family TV series Little House on the Prairie. Gilbert plays Charlie, a 16-year-old orphan struggling to raise her two younger brothers and keep them out of the hands of court-appointed guardians. Her life's goal is to be a horse trainer, and she picks a Western Bronco, who she names after her favorite actor Sylvester Stallone, as her unlikely entry into the field. Working with a grizzled old former cavalryman turned rancher, she takes the horse against all odds right up to the National Equestrian Olympic trials. Unlike the most famous girl-meets-horse film, National Velvet, the riding competition central to the story here is not a race but formal dressage, jumping, and cross-country.

Gilbert had ridden only slightly before making Sylvester. "I knew how to get on and off a horse from my role on Little House on the Prairie," she said. "But I was only nine years old then, and I rode a horse named Pee Wee who was about 400 years old. Pee Wee wouldn't gallop. He only walked and trotted. He was basically a good pony for little kids." To prepare for the role, she trained for about four weeks, riding school horses at the Westlake Riding Club in Los Angeles. According to Gilbert, on the set, she was in the saddle from nine to noon, and back on again for another hour after a lunch break, six or seven days a week. She had to learn to herd cattle and goats, barrel race, gallop, trot and canter in a Western saddle. "I rode a Western-trained horse called Pecos True, and I've never seen anything like him. His mouth was so sensitive that, even at a full gallop, I could just barely move the reins and he'd screech to a halt." Despite all the practice, Gilbert still reportedly used a double for the intricate dressage routines, and serious riders and equestrian enthusiasts claim they can easily spot the difference between the actress and the more experienced stunt rider.

For Sylvester, Gilbert was paired with Richard Farnsworth, the most reliable weathered-and-wise old-timer in films during this period. Farnsworth was a stuntman for several decades, beginning with the Marx Brothers comedy A Day at the Races (1937), in which he played a jockey. Over the years he doubled for Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Montgomery Clift, Steve McQueen, and even Roy Rogers. He had the occasional line or two in a movie, but it wasn't until his Oscar®-nominated supporting role in the Jane Fonda Western Comes a Horseman (1978) that he was truly considered an actor. In his late 50s when he made that picture, he suddenly found himself in demand and even had the occasional lead in stories tailored specifically to his talents and audience appeal: The Grey Fox (1982) and David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999), which brought him a Best Actor Academy Award nomination. That was his last film. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, Farnsworth took his own life in October 2000 at the age of 80.

Gilbert's love interest in Sylvester is played by Michael Schoeffling, the teen dreamboat of Sixteen Candles (1984). The former GQ model retired from acting in the early 90s after only 11 films and now lives with his family in his native northeastern Pennsylvania, where he operates a successful business making hand-crafted furniture.

Director Tim Hunter was already proficient in the teen drama genre by the time he made Sylvester; before this he made Tex (1982), and following Sylvester he directed River's Edge (1986). Screenwriter Carol Sobieski also had some prior experience that served her well on this project, as the writer of the boy-and-his-horse flick Casey's Shadow (1978). Sobieski started in television in the mid-60s and earned two Emmy nominations for her work there. She was also Oscar®-nominated for her screen adaptation of Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), two years after she died of liver disease at the age of 51. The film's story was turned into a novel by A.C. Crispin, a noted science fiction writer who has contributed many works to the Star Wars and Star Trek series.

Sylvester was rated PG and even nominated for a Young Artist Award as Best Motion Picture Family Drama, in spite of a love scene between Gilbert and Schoeffling, profanity, and an attempted rape scene with (at least in its initial theatrical release) brief nudity.

The bulk of the movie was filmed in Texas, including around Marfa, while the equestrian competition was shot in Lexington, Kentucky. The film continues to be very popular with horse enthusiasts and discussed frequently on Internet blogs, including one thread about the Kentucky Horse Park. The park's cross-country course and barns, as well as shots of the lush, sprawling bluegrass countryside, make for a beautiful backdrop to the story.

Director: Tim Hunter
Producer: Martin Jurow
Screenplay: Carol Sobieski
Cinematography: Hiro Narita
Editing: David Garfield, Suzanne Pettit, Howard E. Smith
Production Design: James W. Newport
Original Music: Lee Holdridge
Cast: Richard Farnsworth (Foster), Melissa Gilbert (Charlie), Michael Schoeffling (Matt), Constance Towers (Muffy), Arliss Howard (Peter).

by Rob Nixon



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