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By Martin Keady · April 28, 2015
Often, cinema and sports are antithetical: cinema is usually unable to recreate the natural drama and sheer “what happens next” suspense of sports; while many sports lack the artistry, beauty and grandeur of the greatest cinema. But occasionally, as in these 10 great films, cinema and sports combine to create something greater than either one, movies that capture the elemental, even epic nature of sports and preserve it forever.
(1970, Directed by Robert Altman, Written by Ring Lardner Jr., based on the novel by Richard Hooker)
I know – technically M.A.S.H is a film about war, not sports. However, as George Orwell said, “Sport is war without the shooting,” and in many ways M.A.S.H is the war film that doesn’t show the shooting but what happens after people have been shot and have to be put back together again. It is in that context that the remarkable ending of the film – an American football, or gridiron, match between two M.A.S.H (mobile army surgical hospital) units – is entirely appropriate, showing how sports, precisely because they imitate combat so closely, is the perfect escape from it.
So good is the football match in M.A.S.H that it is almost like a film within a film, superbly summing up all the key elements of this magnificent movie: the teamwork; the necessity for discipline and maverick individuality; and even the drug-taking. (The scene showing two giant blonde footballers sharing a joint is the definitive proof that M.A.S.H is a Vietnam war movie masquerading as a Korean police-action movie: there wasn’t such good shit in Korea.)
Much of the credit for the authenticity of the American football match must be attributed to the inclusion of a genuine former football player, Fred Williamson, as the immortally monickered “Spearchucker Jones.” Some critics and websites (including Wikipedia) credit him for directing the football scenes, but surely that is going too far. While his technical expertise and personal experience of the game must have contributed greatly, the whole freewheeling, spear-chucking energy of the American football sequence at the end of M.A.S.H is undoubtedly pure and unadulterated Altman.
9. THE FINAL TEST
(1953, Directed by Anthony Asquith and Written by Terrence Rattigan)
There aren’t many great cricket films: the game is too slow-moving, too idiosyncratic and, well, too English to appeal to a universal global audience, and specifically the all-important American market. But as with everything else, cricket’s weaknesses are also its strengths, and The Final Test is the great fictional cricket film because it is utterly true to its subject matter. As one of the fictional spectators puts it when asked if he is looking forward to an exciting day: “I hope not. All I want to see is the boys quietly piling up the runs and not getting out. I don’t want any excitement, thanks.”
Like cricket itself, at times The Final Test may be lacking in excitement but by way of compensation it is deeply moving in its meditations on sports, life and above all time. The final test of the title is the last one – his hundredth – to be played by Sam Palmer, an English cricketer played by that most English of actors, Jack Warner (who later found fame on the small screen as Dixon of Dock Green as Britain’s favourite policeman). In many ways, however, the depiction of Palmer is a thinly veiled portrait of the greatest cricketer (and arguably the greatest sportsman) of all, Australia’s Don Bradman, who had tormented English cricket and cricket fans for the previous two decades. It was as if the writer of The Final Test, the dramatist Terrence Rattigan and a keen cricketer himself, wrote the film as a kind of wish fulfilment: like most English cricket fans, he obviously secretly wished that Bradman was English, and if he couldn’t be in life, well, he would make him so in art.
The Final Test is what used to be called perfect matinee fare: a film to be seen in the afternoon, preferably on a rainy English day when it is too wet to actually play cricket but not too wet to watch it, especially as it features cameo performances from some of the finest English cricketers ever, including Denis Compton and Len Hutton.
8. FIRE IN BABYLON
(2010, Directed by Stevan Riley)
Fire In Babylon is the great non-fiction film about cricket, and one of the finest sporting documentaries ever made. It tells the remarkable tale of how the West Indies, a side composed of players from the disparate and often competing islands of the Caribbean, came to rule the cricket world for nearly two decades and ultimately became so good that, like all the most dominant sportsmen and women, they necessitated a changing of the rules, simply to give the others a chance.
Fire In Babylon may be largely made up of “talking heads,” but what talking heads: a roll-call of many of the finest cricketers to play the game, including the legendary captain, Clive Lloyd, the indomitable batsman, Sir Viv Richards (the spiritual successor to Bradman) and above all the phalanx of fiery, acerbic fast bowlers, including Michael Holding, who nearly knocked off so many English, Australian and Indian heads that eventually the rules of cricket were changed to limit the number of bouncers (literally, balls that bounced up at the batsman’s head) that could be bowled.
As with all the best art and sports, the best is saved to last, when Holding recounts the single most astonishing statistic about the great West Indies team, pointing out that for more than 15 years they did not lose a test series home or away, anywhere in the world. That record makes them unarguably the greatest cricket team ever and arguably the finest team in any sport ever, and as such entirely worthy of celebration.
7. CHARIOTS OF FIRE
(1980, Directed by Hugh Hudson, Written by Colin Welland)
Running is the oldest, indeed the original sport (we had to run away from sabre-toothed tigers and the like until we learned how to kill them), and the greatest film about running is Chariots of Fire. Indeed, so synonymous have the film and its Vangelis-penned music become with that act of running itself that we only have to hear its slow, opening electronic wash of sound to picture the film’s characters (and, in our dreams, ourselves) running along a beach.
At the heart of Chariots of Fire is a dilemma that can seem old-fashioned, even quaint, to audiences today, nearly a hundred years after the period in which the film is set, namely the refusal of a champion runner, Ian Liddell, to compete in an Olympic heat on a Sunday (or Sabbath). However, such an objection was not unique; as late as 1995, the great New Zealand rugby player, Michael Jones, was omitted from his country’s squad for that year’s Rugby World Cup because, like Liddell, he was a devout Christian and refused to play on Sundays.
Such a conflict, between an individual’s desire for sporting success and their awareness of and even obedience to a higher principle, is at the heart of several of the finest films about sport, but nowhere is it explored more powerfully than in Chariots of Fire, which is entirely fitting, given that the film’s title is itself a quote from the Bible.
6. EIGHT MEN OUT
(1988, Written and Directed by John Sayles, based on Eliot Asinof’s non-fiction book)
There may not be many great films about cricket, but there are several about its American cousin, baseball, including Field of Dreams, The Natural and even A League of Their Own. However, the greatest baseball movie is about the greatest baseball story: that of the so-called “Blacksox,” the Chicago Whitesox team who deliberately threw the 1919 World Series after being bribed by gamblers.
America has supposedly lost its “innocence” more often than a townful of virgins, but if any one event can genuinely lay claim to being that most dubious of turning points it is the 1919 World Series scandal. In literature, it is one of the seeds of The Great Gatsby, whose narrator, Nick Carraway, expresses amazement that any man or group of men could have been responsible for such a world-altering event, and if Eight Men Out is not quite in Gatsby’s artistic league it is still a marvellously mature, measured and complex film, like so many made by its director, John Sayles, who is arguably the finest openly left-leaning film director that America has ever produced.
Like the directing, the acting in Eight Men Out, by the likes of John Cusack and David Strathairn, is uniformly excellent, but special mention must be made of John Mahoney, who plays the Whitesox’s manager, Kid Gleason. Gleason was unaware of what his players were up to and is genuinely appalled when he finds out, and Mahoney’s performance as a naturally fatherly man of utter integrity is surely the one that marked him out for his future, career-defining role as Kelsey Grammer’s father, Martin, in Frasier.
5. GREGORY’S GIRL
(1981, Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth)
Like M.A.S.H, on the surface Gregory’s Girl is not a sporting film at all, but just as M.A.S.H shows how sports can be the ultimate escape, even from the horrors of war, so Gregory’s Girl shows how sports can be uniquely successful in bringing people together – even as unlikely a pairing as the prettiest girl in the school, who is also an ace football player, and the geekiest, gawkiest of boys, who cannot play for toffee.
It was a genuine shock to see Gordon John Sinclair, who played the eponymous Gregory, in World War Z as a Navy Seal, of all things – almost as shocking as seeing Dee Hepburn, who played Dee, the original object of his affections, having to resort briefly to topless modelling in the 1980s. But in cinema (and our memory), they will forever be Gregory and his girl: the former a hapless goalkeeper; the other a superbly lithe and lethal striker, who even the opposition want to score, purely so they, too, can kiss and hug her (much to Gregory’s disgust and disapproval).
Gregory’s Girl is possibly the greatest movie about school and certainly the greatest movie about school sports. The fabulous second half, in which Gregory finds himself being set up with seemingly every other girl in the school before finally ending up with Clare Grogan’s Susan, is itself set up by the almost flawless first half, in which Susan and Dorothy peer down at the school’s concrete playing “fields” and prepare their brilliant plan. Thus, life, sports and art are shown as being inextricably interlinked.
4. BULL DURHAM
(1988, Written and Directed by Ron Shelton)
It was only in researching this piece that I discovered that Ron Shelton, the writer-director of Bull Durham, had himself been a baseball player and that, like Kevin Costner’s “Crash” Davis, he had largely bounced around between the major and minor leagues. But then I’ve always been slow on the uptake, and in retrospect it is absolutely obvious that such a beautifully observed and heart-felt film could only have been written and directed by someone who had effectively lived it first.
If Eight Men Out is a film about the uniquely American sport of baseball and the uniquely American tragedy of the 1919 World Series, then Bull Durham is the baseball movie that transcends baseball and, like all the best sporting films, sport itself. As Susan Sarandon’s groupie-philosopher, Annie, knows, baseball, like all sport, is ultimately a metaphor: for war; for love; for life itself. And Bull Durham imparts more wisdom about life than many other more overtly artistic and philosophical films, not least in its marvellous closing line, “I just wanna be.”
Bull Durham also shows that, unlike sport itself, where the greatest achievements are usually to be found at the peaks (the Olympics, the World Cups and the Wimbledon finals), in sporting movies the greatest achievements are usually to be found at the other end of the scale, among the failures and the never-weres. As Bull Durham demonstrates emphatically, it is a paradox of sporting cinema that the biggest hits are often struck by the biggest losers.
3. WHEN WE WERE KINGS
(1996, Directed by Leon Gast)
The story of the making and subsequent decades-long delay in the release of When We Were Kings is, as is so often the case with great films, itself worthy of being made into a movie. Leon Gast’s documentary about the 1974 fight for the World Heavyweight title (at the time, indisputably the greatest prize in sport, even if its allure has dimmed considerably since) between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire literally languished in the can for more than 20 years, until Gast, having been prevailed upon by other directors who had seen the unreleased material and been stunned by it, finally showed it to the rest of the world. And if ever a film was worth waiting for, it is this one.
When We Were Kings, as the title implies, is both a celebration and an elegy: a journalistic and cinematic record of a unique time in history, when sports, art and politics combined to produce the still scarcely believable “Rumble In the Jungle,” as Zaire’s President (read “Dictator”) Mobutu sought to put his tiny, war-ravaged country on the map by staging sport’s greatest event, coupled with a music festival that welcomed “home” to Africa other African-American superstars, notably James Brown (the only man whose ego and talent could ever match those of Ali).
The story, the cinematography, the music – there are many marvels in this marvellous film, but above all there is Ali himself, the sporting King of Kings. While there are many great sporting documentaries (including the aforementioned Fire In Babylon), it is entirely appropriate that the greatest sporting documentary of them all should be about the greatest sportsman of them all. With Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao set to duke it out in Vegas on Saturday night for a quillion dollars, it is worth remembering what a real sporting superhero looks, sounds and dances like.
2. THIS SPORTING LIFE
(1963, Directed by Lindsay Anderson, Written by David Storey, based on his novel of the same name)
After running, rugby (and all its variants, ranging from American football to Australian Rules and even Gaelic Football) may be the most elemental of sports: ultimately, it is about picking up the (usually oddly shaped) ball and running with it. For that reason, even a caveman could play rugby, and in many ways Richard Harris in This Sporting Life is that caveman, a veritable brute of a man who can also astonish with his capacity for tenderness, just as sport itself, for all its flaws and obscenities, can also astonish us with its capacity for grace and beauty.
Harris’ Frank Machin goes from night-club brawler to small-town sporting hero in the sport of rugby league (probably the most basic and in many ways most beautiful form of rugby). He is housed by the club with Rachel Roberts’s recently widowed landlady, and a “beauty and the beast” love story ensues. However, the game itself is also both beautiful and beastly: capable of bestowing glory, but also prone to provoking violence.
Even more than The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, This Sporting Life is the great sporting film from one of the greatest of all national cinematic movements, the so-called British “kitchen sink drama” movies of the late 1950s and early 1960s. They showed a Britain (largely poor, working-class and angry) that had hitherto been kept concealed from much of the rest of the world in traditional British cinematic portrayals of toffs and ladies. Its writer, David Storey, knew both worlds, having – incredibly – both attended art school and been a rugby league player himself. Like Ron Shelton with Bull Durham, he obviously wrote from personal experience and consequently brought all the fury of the rugby field and the artistry of the studio to his account of the most brutal of sporting lives.
1. RAGING BULL
(1980, Directed by Martin Scorsese, Written by Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, Based on Raging Bull: My Story by Jake La Motta)
In the end, as in all sporting contests there can be only one winner and it is, inevitably, Raging Bull. A quick, if unsystematic, survey of cinematic reference books and online polls shows that Raging Bull is invariably regarded as the greatest film about sport and, unlike in so many rigged boxing contests (not least some of those featuring Jake La Motta himself), the unanimous verdict is justified.
It is often said that boxing has produced the greatest cinema, and indeed the greatest literature and art, of any sport because it is so universal: traditionally, not even football has had the reach and range of boxing. That may have been true in the 20th century, when sport (like cinema) first became a global commodity, but it will be interesting to see if boxing retains its sporting and artistic pre-eminence in the 21st century, especially as calls to ban it are only likely to escalate in our increasingly safety-conscious world.
If boxing does ultimately die out, or is banned, then Raging Bull will be a reminder of its quixotic glory, showing how even a man as brutal and ultimately dumb as Jake La Motta can attain a kind of grandeur, through his ability to both inflict and, more importantly, withstand pain.
La Motta’s fights with the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson are generally regarded by the boxing cognoscenti as being the finest series of fights ever fought between two boxers (at least until the Ali-Frasier fights of the 1970s) and Raging Bull is an equally great artistic achievement, with its stunning cinematography, lacerating script and, above all, epic performances. When De Niro’s battered and befuddled La Motta is reduced to quoting Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront, claiming that he too “coulda been a contender,” it is almost a literal passing of the torch, from the original method actor, Brando, to his spiritual heir, De Niro, just as one great boxer invariably gives way to a greater, or at least younger, fighter. Ultimately, Raging Bull shows that life itself (and all its composite elements, including art and sport) is a war, and we will all do well just to survive it.