Written and directed by Bryan Forbes
I hate being wrong, it's embarrassing. So I will not say, flatly, that 1978's International Velvet was cinema's very first true legacy sequel, though it is very tempting to do so. I am, however, quite sure that it beats the "I'm neither paid nor actually interested enough in the subject to do anything besides a cursory Google search" contender, The Color of Money, by a good eight years. It is, in any case, a very early example of the legacy sequel, and wow, is it ever the malfunctioning prototype.
It does tick most of the boxes on the checklist: it tries to rhyme the original film's narrative with a new character who, for bonus points, is related to and is therefore literally the legacy of the protagonist from the original film; it assumes you liked the original protagonist, and therefore wish to see them get closure; it has callbacks; but it also realizes it needs to distinguish itself in some way beyond "generational recapitulation," and so strikes out into related-but-different territories; it banks on the brand name in a title that promises an escalation of the action. Objectively-speaking, then, this 34-years-later follow-up to Clarence Brown's 1944 masterpiece National Velvet does everything a legacy sequel is "supposed" to do. It merely does them horribly poorly.
Some of the ways it fails, of course, are pretty obvious. Some are so obvious they're barely worth harping on at all, starting with that title International Velvet, which I'm certain I'd find cleverer and less grating if the movie were remotely good or if everything that made it "international" didn't make it worse. But let's just stick with the obvious problems within the film, most egregiously the inability to secure the participation of any of the first film's cast, and not just Elizabeth Taylor, but Mickey Rooney or Angela Lansbury or Jackie Jenkins or anyone, Rooney, in particular, being a "we didn't even try" omission considering he was willing to trade on his performance as Mi Taylor in Black Stallion barely even one year later. Which probably makes that completely-unrelated film a better legacy sequel to National Velvet all by itself. Mi Taylor isn't even mentioned in this movie, though, and perhaps he wouldn't strictly need to be. Velvet Brown is, however. I cannot tell you if Taylor was actually approached. She might've said no for several good reasons. But I guess they must not have ever intended to ask her, because when Elizabeth Taylor says "no," that's when a responsible filmmaker starts restructuring the movie around Mi, since I'm not sure Rooney ever said "no" to anything.
So instead we have Velvet, as rendered by Nanette Newman, once the winner of the Grand National Steeplechase atop the legendary horse Pie, though when her sex was revealed, she was disqualified and her victory asterisked. Now Velvet's in middle-age, or possibly a very well-preserved old age (we'll get there), and upon her is thrust the child of her recently-deceased brother Donald, for I believe that this film has actually retconned the number of Brown siblings from "four" to "two," thereby leaving Velvet as the only alternative caregiver for her niece. This is despite Donald having long-since emigrated to America and married an American woman (who's also deceased when the movie starts, and apparently without any family of her own), which in turn means that when his daughter Sarah (Tatum O'Neal) is delivered to her new guardian, she's wrenched from her home to be transplanted into the southeastern English countryside to live with an aunt she barely knows along with her aunt's writer boyfriend John (Christopher Plummer).
Sarah has a horrible time of it until she rides the old Pie (probably not the first film's equine actor, King Charles). Velvet is extremely angry at first, for reasons that are emotionally obscure and can really only be guessed at despite an attempt at explication—she's so mad she actually slaps the child in the mouth, and, fair's fair, it's arguably the single most effective scene in the film—but Velvet relents, and with John's help, assists Sarah in purchasing one of the Pie's offspring, whom Sarah names, well, the Arizona Pie, after her birthplace. Sarah commits herself to equestrianism much as her aunt before her, though she's more into eventing; she does well enough in local competitions that she catches the attention of the coach for Britain's equestrian Olympic team (Anthony Hopkins), and in her striving, she wins a place at the XX, XXI, or possibly XXII Olympiad, though it's desperately unclear which Olympics, precisely. "Imaginary Olympics" will do (I think they mention Boston), though XXI fits the easiest since neither the Munich massacre nor the prospect of going to the USSR for the '80 Olympics come up.
There is much to dislike about International Velvet, but this unstuckness in time really hammers home how few shits it seems like Bryan Forbes gave, though given his authorship (he wrote the screenplay and directed it and produced it), he must have given many shits in ways I simply can't comprehend. The specific Olympiad isn't truly important, but it's symptomatic, and it's very tempting to leave this review with the simple yet profound observation that International Velvet does not seem to realize that National Velvet was a period piece that merely happened to be released in 1944, as everything about the film seems built around the assumption that it actually was set in 1944, and even giving it the widest latitude and accepting "okay, sure, National Velvet took place in 1944 and not 192X," it's still built with grotesque indifference even then.
So: okay, fine, dipshits, you can cast an actress who's already two years younger than Taylor in 1978 to play a character who should be ten to fifteen years older than Taylor in 1978. I guess the Pie, a horse, is likewise in his mid-30s, if not fully fifty years of age, and therefore perhaps the oldest horse on Earth. And then there's that horse's virility: previously referred to as a gelding even if you didn't pick up on that visually, now he's accomplished the remarkable feat of siring foals. (The Pie, as central as he is to Velvet, isn't even mentioned again after dispensing his seed; the implication is he died, but nobody cares enough for this to be the anchor of a single scene.) As if it even matters that the equine protagonist of this film is a legacy character in his own right. Let's move past continuity nitpicks, even if they are brutal and unignorable, and get to the real meat: in my whole life, I don't think I've ever seen a sequel that misapprehends every single appealing aspect of its progenitor as badly as International Velvet does. Halloween III isn't this much of a swerve.
Our heroine may be so obsessed with riding that it basically cures her of both her grief and her social anomie in the space of a single Goddamn cut, but this is emphatically not an animal lover's film: she conceives of her horse not as a friend or companion, nor as a being worthy of admiration, as Velvet had before her; Sarah sees her "Arizona Pie" as absolutely nothing more than the tool of her chosen sport, which is perhaps why she chose such a de-individuating name that, to the degree it has any personality at all, is just an extension of her own. This gets us into the weeds, but there are several things in International Velvet that are utterly insane. Presently, let's consider the most ill-judged, the long sequence involving the horses and riders on an international flight to get them to an overseas competition, whereupon one of the other horses has a massive freakout. A kid's movie made by normal people would use this as an opportunity to demonstrate Sarah's compassion and preternatural animal skill, or something like that. This kid's movie made by freakishkly abnormal madpeople just kills the horse, taking recourse to the (very inadvisable!) extreme measure of shooting him—inside the pressurized cabin of 707—and as far as I can tell Forbes tossed this horror-inflected nightmare into this, um, sequel to beloved family film National Velvet purely because he was bored, and/or knew his movie was boring.
And stealing a page from another Clarence Brown family film could have its place in an unusually tough kid's movie, but because this is plausibly the worst horsegirl movie ever made, this cruel gesture doesn't even really have any effect on the story; it barely affects the protagonist's scheduling. But then, "shit that doesn't matter" is virtually International Velvet's abiding principle. This is true in many ways, though the other "utterly insane" moment comes earlier, when a bunch of jerk Brit teens engage Sarah and her horse in a car chase, which concludes with them wrecking their car in a field, whereupon their car explodes. Why does a sequel to National Velvet have a body count?
There's some good here, albeit even the best is bound up with the bad, exclusively revolving around Newman and Plummer. (Hopkins is also effective, on a line-to-line basis, as Sarah's aloof coach—he's at least modestly funny—but the only reason the role isn't totally stock is because he's so strictly business that he's incapable of actually having an emotional connection with the heroine, so truthfully he's worse than stock.) Newman and Plummer, anyway, are forwarded enough that you can see how much better—not necessarily worth watching, but better—the movie would have been, if it didn't bother with sports and had just told the story of a middle-aged Velvet Brown, her middle-aged commitment-phobe boyfriend, and their struggle to integrate a random kid into their lives with an aged champion racehorse serving as a token of intergenerational affection.
The good news about this is that Newman and Plummer are genuinely good together, sweet and even sexy. The bad news is that, partly because this is a 1978 movie that already involves an orphaned girl, teen death by misadventure, and a horse execution, and that we see also requires a 16 year old girl to interact a lot with a 49 year old rake who writes erotica, you start to worry slightly, especially as some of Forbes's framing of Plummer in his chummier interactions with O'Neal is not well-designed to deemphasize those worries. (Those worries are, thank God, groundless, and it's not really Plummer's fault: Forbes just keeps choosing to use low-angle singles that isolate Plummer and O'Neal and give the former's grins a leering quality; if they were medium two-shots you wouldn't even notice it. But if I haven't made it clear this is a badly-directed movie on top of everything, let me state that explicitly now: there are literally maybe three good shots in the whole movie, all stacked together, all involving Velvet searching a misty glen for Sarah and sighting a silhouette crossing a hill against the sky atop her horse, because even this bozo can't ruin that.) The other bad news is implied by the statement "Hopkins plays Sarah's coach": it's astounding and depressing that a sequel to National Velvet would bring back Velvet solely as a maternal figure whose arc runs in complete parallel to her child's, instead of as a mentor ready to dispense a lifetime of horse knowledge as a champion fucking horsewoman. Velvet doesn't even go to the Olympics!
Newman, meanwhile, is called upon to do voiceover narration for Velvet a lot, possibly because they forgot to put much Velvet in the movie—it's something the careful screenplay of National Velvet would never have required—and, somewhat hilariously, Hopkins is also called upon to do voiceover narration, apropos of nothing except I suppose to explain (not very well) the rules of the equestrian events to us. Which brings us to the death knell of International Velvet as a sports movie, which is that its rendition of its sport is almost unwatchably dull. I mean, I dare you to try to watch it: once we hit the Olympics, International Velvet becomes all-but indistinguishable from TV Olympics coverage, twenty-five solid minutes of bland commentary from random male voices, and distant, impersonal shots of competitors whom we've never seen before doing horse tricks. Even when Velvet enters the field herself this doesn't change—it's the exact same "sportscast" treatment for the heroine as it is the faceless guy from, e.g., Germany. It's worth pointing out that at the same juncture in National Velvet, Clarence Brown was treating us to brilliantly-presented horse-racing spectacle, and while I don't want to state, categorically, that equestrian eventing is incapable of being exciting in its own right, Forbes didn't do himself many favors by switching to a lonely-looking sport where riders participate one-at-a-time, leading to a bunch of disaggregated clips that would take a great deal more editing acumen just to afford the riders any sense of direct competition with one another. "Actually looking cool" doesn't even seem to have been a goal.
So that's International Velvet, which trades in the rich emotions, pastoral vibes, fun characters, solid narrative arcs, and even the specific badass sport of National Velvet, for basically just a collection-of-stuff-that-happens, none of which is compelling by itself after about the half hour mark once Sarah gets her horse. It's a boring movie that's actively offensive in how badly it mistreats the great film it was intended to celebrate. Hell, it's mean to say about a sixteen year old kid, but O'Neal herself kind of sucks—mostly, she's an unexceptional and unemotive screen presence, but then, Sarah's not even really given much adversity to overcome. (Besides psychopathic bullies who die before the first act's over, the closest is adversity on her behalf, when it turns out Velvet isn't as wealthy as she appears, which in its middle-class soccer momness still doesn't come within spitting distance of the mythic underdog tale Velvet led in the first film.) And that's on top of some dubious casting that, counter to every rule in the book (though I guess Taylor broke it in National Velvet) requires O'Neal, over the course of her film's three desultory years, to play older, when she was already a very girlish sixteen, so it's vaguely unsettling that the movie requires her to begin contemplating adult relationships and marriage by the end. Whenever it's not ugly and nuts, then, it's just drab—the cinematography is pretty much just "late 70s white-tinged sludge"—and I could go on. But forget "first legacy sequel," International Velvet might be the worst.
P.S.: See, I would've been wrong, too, because of 1976's The Shaggy D.A., which is way better than this.
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