The Mighty Conqueror

The Mighty Conqueror
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This ten-minute film is the only documentary made about racehorse Phar Lap during his lifetime. It was produced by Neville Macken and directed by pioneer female filmmaker Paulette McDonagh.

The film features superb close-ups of Phar Lap with handler Tommy Woodcock, who feeds him sugar cubes, and rare footage of him doing track work. The narrator informs us that he cost only £168 and has won £56,420 in winnings to date.

A photograph of part-owner and trainer Harry Telford’s son Gerald, whose nickname was Cappy, atop the horse 'like a pimple on a pumpkin' is followed by a still of Phar Lap after the AJC Derby victory.

In a press interview Telford talks about Phar Lap’s racing success, total earnings and the origins of his name. His name came from the Thai-Zhuang word for lightning - ‘like a flash on the sky’ - Farlap. Telford liked the name, suggested by physician Dr Aubrey Ping, but changed the F to Ph so he could create a seven letter word and then split it in two in keeping with the dominant naming pattern of Melbourne Cup winners.

Phar Lap is shown winning several races including the 1930 Melbourne Cup and the 1931 Randwick Plate – the only known footage of this race and the last time he would run at a Sydney race meet. Jockey Jimmy Pike, who rode Phar Lap to his victory at the Melbourne Cup in 1930 is interviewed after the victory commenting, 'I don’t think we’ll ever see his equal again’, and talking about the horse's intelligence and power.

The film finishes with Phar Lap being loaded onto the Ulimaroa at Sydney docks in November 1931, ultimately bound for the USA where he died tragically on 5 April 1932. The narrator says poignantly, 'Well old fella, this was your last race at Randwick. We're going to lose you and we're going to miss you, but we're with you to a man, Phar Lap. The rest is up to you.'

Newsreel coverage of his racing achievements, departure to America and return after his death present the public face of Phar Lap, but the most moving scenes in this film are of Phar Lap at play, frolicking in his sand pit and chasing Woodcock around his enclosure. The relaxed Phar Lap 'off the field’ at the beginning of the clip is contrasted with his more familiar professional appearance on the track, consistent with how sporting personalities are generally presented in biographical documentaries. Phar Lap, of course, cannot talk but the commentary presents him as a source of hope and pride for Australia. The lively voice-over is similar to Frank Hurley’s humorous and informal style (see Jewel of the Pacific, 1932). The narration connects the audience with the images on screen in an immediate and intimate way, cementing Phar Lap’s place in the nation’s affections.

The Mighty Conqueror synopsis

This short documentary made by the McDonagh sisters (Paulette, Isobel and Phyllis) shows Phar Lap on and off the track. It includes footage of the gelding in his stables, at play with strapper and trainer Tommy Woodcock, and competing for the 1930 Melbourne Cup and the Randwick Plate. It also contains interviews with co-owner and trainer Harry Telford and rider Jimmy Pike.

The Mighty Conqueror curator's notes

Made only a year before Phar Lap’s untimely death, The Mighty Conqueror boasts some of the last moving images of Phar Lap in Australia both on and off the track. Australians at the time were in the midst of the Great Depression and Phar Lap provided a potent symbol of national pride. A light-hearted voice-over commentary offers an intimate portrait of the horse, combined with the views of Phar Lap’s trainer, owner and jockey. An extended sequence at the beginning highlights the horse’s physical beauty and strength and is supplemented with footage of Phar Lap on the racetrack, including a newsreel of his win in the 1930 Melbourne Cup. The scenes of Phar Lap boarding a ship to America are the last glimpses of the horse alive on Australian soil.

The film was directed by Paulette McDonagh, the youngest of the McDonagh sisters. The McDonaghs were significant figures in the late silent and early sound era of Australian filmmaking, not just for being women in a male-dominated industry but as filmmakers interested in the possibilities that sound brought to the screen. The sisters made four feature films, Those Who Love (1926), The Far Paradise (1928), The Cheaters (1930, which was released with some synchronised sound-on-disc sequences) and Two Minutes Silence (1933). The sisters explored early sound technology, while making documentary featurettes in the early 1930s with Neville Macken of Standardtone Sound Recording Studios, including Australia in the Swim (1932), Stranger in his Own Country (1932), How I Play Cricket (1932) and The Mighty Conqueror.

Their only surviving works are The Mighty Conqueror, The Trail of the Roo (1932), The Cheaters (1930) and the incomplete The Far Paradise (1928).

Notes by Poppy De Souza.

Production company:
Neville Macken Productions
The McDonagh Sisters (AKA Isabel, Paulette and Phyllis McDonagh)
Paulette McDonagh