A century ago, the United States underwent an extraordinary Green Energy Revolution. Streetcars and then automobiles became the primary methods of city transportation for people and consumer goods.
From the dawn of Western Civilization, cities ran on horse power. Urban life was filthy and stinky in a way that few of us can even imagine. Dysentery, cholera, and hookworm plagued 19th Century Americans, and these weren’t just spread by human waste.
I see signs in front of people’s houses that order dog parents to not let their animals relieve themselves on the lawn. Yet these same homeowners do not give thanks every day to the automakers. Without cars, their entire street would be a horse toilet.
Americans moved on from horses as their transportation technology – eagerly and permanently. But some people refused to get rid of horses altogether.
No one loves or values animals more than me. I don’t see the appeal of horses, though. Their size makes them seem like more trouble than they’re worth.
The well-made, emotionally satisfying family movie “National Velvet” celebrates horses in a profound and convincing way. Through the eyes of 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, I could see for the first time how someone could fall in love with a horse.
Newcomer Liz Taylor immediately steals our hearts as Velvet Brown. Velvet is the youngest daughter of an incredibly sweet and loving family. They live their happy, God-fearing lives in a small seaside hamlet on the southern coast of England.
While her older sister (Angela Lansbury) pines for boys, Velvet dreams only of riding horses. Her dreams come true when she wins a raffle and becomes the proud owner of a rambunctious, athletic horse. Conveniently, a young jockey (Mickey Rooney) arrives in town around the same time and moves in with the Browns.
Velvet ups the ante when she enters her new horse into the Grand National: the UK’s most prestigious race. It’s a far-fetched fantasy, but the Brown family rallies around their intrepid daughter.
“National Velvet” is a first-rate horse movie. And it also has something substantive to say about morality.
I imagine morality as an individual pursuit: just me and my free will. In contrast, the film presents morality as a family affair. Again and again, we see characters about to make a selfish, destructive decision. It isn’t an angel on their shoulder who guides them; it is the positive influence of the family.
Taken to its logical conclusion, our entire system of crime and punishment is unhelpful and unfair. “National Velvet” argues that the only difference between the man in the pew and the man in the prison cell is that one had the love and support of his family and community.
“What’s the meaning of goodness if there isn’t a little badness to overcome?” Mrs. Brown rhetorically asks.
In the movie’s most striking scene, Mr. Brown is in a frenzy trying to find ways to financially capitalize on Velvet’s sudden fame. Mrs. Brown and Velvet respectfully but forcefully conclude that this is greedy, immoral exploitation. If only every parent of a child star would listen as well as Mr. Brown does.
The only character who needs no guidance is Velvet. Her pure love of horses is her moral compass. The film makes equestrians look so wholesome that I was fully convinced.
I remain eternally grateful, however, that I live in an era of automobiles rather than horses for everyday transportation. Horses may be noble but they leave a lot of vile waste.