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Sports Films
by Walt Opie

Continued from Part One.

The Formula...

The first real job I landed after college was as a small town sportswriter in Virginia. During my first week, the managing editor told me, "You're lucky, the rules are different when you write about sports [as opposed to hard news]. Readers expect you to have fun with it." What he meant was that it was fine to write cheesy headlines like "Hornets Sting Panthers" or "Panthers Devour Cardinals." Embracing this concept meant one didn't have to reinvent themselves every time; people expected this kind of sports wordplay, and might actually be disappointed if they didn't get it.

Kurt Russell in Miracle

Similar rules and logic apply to sports movies. Certain elements appear repeatedly in the convention of sports films, and I would argue that the audience even expects to see them. Writers often refer to this as formulaic, but perhaps that isn't necessarily a bad thing. This is certainly debatable, but, for what it's worth, here's a brief rundown of the most important of these cliches, err, elements.

For starters, as I mentioned, our protagonist typically needs to be an unknown or aspiring competitor (or sometimes coach), a person or team up against tremendous odds looking to pull off an impossible victory. Disney's 2004 picture Miracle - about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's win over a supposedly unbeatable Soviet Union squad - fits this mold perfectly. Next, our unlikely hero often needs a love interest to inspire and support him or her along the way, and this muse is typically the sane, down to earth partner in the relationship who keeps our hero grounded (Sarandon's Annie Savoy in Bull Durham or Barbara Hershey's high school principal in Hoosiers spring to mind). That's necessary because the hero is usually something of a crazy dreamer (like Kevin Costner as an obsessed Iowa farmer in Field of Dreams) with just enough quirks to be loveable but also to cause us to slightly doubt whether his or her aspirations are really achievable or not. This element of doubt is highly necessary or else there will be little dramatic tension.

Third, there must be a ritualistic training sequence where our hero (or heroes) jumps through the appropriate hoops to become a realistic contender, as immortalized in Rocky when we see Stallone race triumphantly up those museum steps in Philly backed by Bill Conti's inspired theme song "Gonna Fly Now." Also, there should be a trainer or coach in the picture who has taken the underdog on as a sort of pet project despite the dire uphill battle they face together to actually pull this whole scheme off. This coach or trainer is nearly always a glowering older male figure (Burgess Meredith in Rocky is the perfect example - Clint Eastwood mimicked this character, albeit in his own quiet way, in Million Dollar Baby), often with a checkered past of his own. He has already seen it all and done everything, and this coach or trainer probably has his serious doubts about our flawed hero, too, although he may be trying hard to keep these pessimistic thoughts to himself (and the audience). Even the horse-racing movie Seabiscuit, like many other sports films based on a true story, strongly fits the underdog formula.

And finally, there is the antagonist, the anti-hero, the sports film equivalent to the villain who must be defeated, crushed, obliterated (or not, depending on whether the director wants to satisfy or defy the audience's expectations). This is where the fun really begins in a good sports movie - with the confrontations between our would-be hero and his or her nemesis. The four (!) subsequent Rocky sequels went more over the top, and into pure camp territory, as the villains went from a relatively believable Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed in the first two pictures, to Mr. T as a fierce, hungry Clubber Lang (and even a memorable role for pro wrestler Hulk Hogan as Thunderlips) in Rocky III, followed lastly by Rocky IV's 6'6 (vs. Stallone's 5'9) Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago, the Soviet-era killing machine.

Often the boxing villain is the current champ who must be toppled to claim the title. This is why boxing stories are so irresistable - the lines are already clearly defined. It also works nicely for the filmmakers if they can fit politics into the mix, as with the Cold War-era Lundgren character or Miracle's U.S. hockey team competing against a Soviet squad in the 1980 Olympics.

It should be stated that all of these clichés (or key ingredients) are found just as often in the real wide world of sports as they are in our fictional tales, albeit with the good and bad characters often not so black and white. That's what makes sports stories so compelling in the first place - we see these elements carried out regularly in our everyday lives. Who doesn't know the famous ABC Sports slogan, "The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat?" These elements could not be more real or familiar. Many of the greatest sports movies are inspired by the true stories of people who really did manage to beat the odds.

Strange but true...

I would be remiss if I didn't mention there are plenty of excellent films that don't follow the standard sports movie formula outlined above, and, in addition, there are many other areas of competition covered over the years by a wide range of terrific pictures. One particularly noteworthy alternative is Breaking Away (directed by Peter Yates, who also made Bullitt with Steve McQueen) about a slightly odd Bloomington, Indiana lad (Dennis Christopher, and whatever happened to him?) who aspires to be both Italian - he affects a fake Italian accent and calls his father (the terrific Paul Dooley) Papa - and a champion cyclist. Dennis Quaid co-stars as a former high school football star whose future appears stunted. But the real star of the film is Steve Tesich's Oscar-winning, semi-autobiographical screenplay, which is at once funny, humane, unsentimentally optimistic and wholly engaging. Breaking Away is not to be missed.

Quite a few good running movies have been made, most notably the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire - which hasn't aged well although it still looks fine (with Vangelis' memorable, oft-parodied score throughout), and more recently Robert Towne's Without Limits, the better of the two Steve Prefontaine stories, which had Billy Crudup's strong performance at the center.

Another great alternative sports film is The Hustler with Paul Newman in what should have been an Oscar-winning performance as pool shark Fast Eddie Felson and the unforgettable Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats. A key piece of dialogue tells half the story (George C. Scott played Bert Gordon):

Fast Eddie: Do you think I can lose?
Bert Gordon: I never saw you do anything else.
Fast Eddie: You saw me beat Minnesota Fats for eighteen thousand dollars.
Bert Gordon: Look, you want to hustle pool, don't ya? This game isn't like football. Nobody pays you for yardage. When you hustle, you keep score real simple. At the end of the game, you count up your money. That's how you find out who's best. It's the only way.

Martin Scorsese made a formidable sequel, The Color of Money starring Tom Cruise with Paul Newman (who finally earned a Best Actor Oscar), but nothing beats the original.

And then, for the world's most popular sport, soccer has had very few great movies about it. And John Huston's Victory (1980) is not one of them, though the premise, a WWII matchup between Allied prisoners and Germans, is intriguing. Despite the presence of soccer star Pele, film was undone mostly by the presence of Stallone, who insisted to producers that he be the hero at the end by scoring the winning goal. Unfortunately, he was the goalie, so the sight of Sly saving goals serves as the exciting climax. (John Huston may have gone to his grave cursing Stallone's name for ruining his vision of what Victory might have been.) The German film Miracle at Bern (2003) was quite good, and perhaps with the recent success of the girl-powered Bend It Like Beckham and Stephen Chow's ridiculous but hugely entertaining Shaolin Soccer, the gates are opening for more.

And I can't even touch on every single other sport that's been immortalized on the silver screen - from figure skating film (slash hockey slash romance) The Cutting Edge to the Bollywood import Lagaan, surely the greatest cricket movie ever, with the final match in the tradition of many other sports movies mentioned here, and yet with all the singing, dancing, melodrama, and political intrigue - it's a standout.

And even chess, not an athletic sport but certainly a sweat-inducing competition, has made for at least one exciting film: Searching For Bobby Fischer, based on the true story of a young New York City chess prodigy named Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) who some believe might be the next great American champion, trailing in the footsteps of eccentric chess giant Bobby Fischer. This film follows the traditional sports formula in many ways, but with a superb adapted screenplay by director Steven Zaillian (who also adapted Schindler's List) and solid performances by an stellar supporting cast, this little chess movie is a winner all the way.

GreenCine Recommends...

Walt Opie's Baker's Dozen Favorite Sports Films:

Still Waiting for the DVD:

  • Somebody Up There Likes Me: Boxing biopic of Rocky Graziano and one of Paul Newman's early star turns. Originally set to be a James Dean picture, complete with Sal Mineo.

Walt Opie (blog) has served as a sportswriter for several newspapers in Virginia and is a former Camera & Photo Editor at Amazon.com. He received an MFA in Writing from California College of the Arts (CCA) and currently squeaks by as a freelance writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared on Artdish.com and in the literary arts journal Eleven Eleven {1111}.

Go back to Part One...

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