Sports in Film, Television, and History: Introduction

By Briley, Ron | Film & History, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Sports in Film, Television, and History: Introduction


Briley, Ron, Film & History


This second and final issue of Film & History dealing with sport and film demonstrates the outstanding quality of scholarship in the field. Our first issue focused primarily upon American sport, while the essays contained in this volume place sport within a more international and often critical context. Traditionalists often perceive the athletic playing field as a meritocracy in which issues of race, gender, and class play no role. Films such as Miracle (2004), focusing upon the upset victory of the American hockey team over the Soviets in the 1980 Olympic Games, and Ron Howard's Cinderella Man (2005), chronicling the rags to riches story of heavyweight fighter James Braddock during the 1930s, perpetuate the idea that athletics provide a model for social mobility in which hard work will prevail in the best tradition of Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Alger.

The authors in this volume, however, question this assumption; arguing that nationalism, race, class, and gender are major components of sport and its reflection through cinema. Athletes are often burned out at a young age and fail to acquire the educational skills necessary to succeed in life. Sport as an avenue for social mobility often proves illusive. And notions of fair play in the increasingly big money world of sport are given pause by the emergence of performance-enhancing drugs. Yet, we are still drawn to the struggle of sport in which underdogs do achieve the impossible victory and give us all encouragement that equality and justice may reign on and off the fields of play.

The Olympic Games provide a venue for political statement as well as athletic excellence. The 1936 Berlin Games were employed by Nazi Germany to assert Aryan superiority, but this notion was shattered by the efforts of Jesse Owens. The Mexico City Olympics of 1968 witnessed the brutal suppression of student dissent by the Mexican government, as well as the symbolic Black power protest of sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos. While political boycotts dealing with the Cold War and racial apartheid were significant factors in the post World War II Olympics, perhaps the most infamous example of politics intruding into the games is the 1972 terrorist attack which resulted in the slaying of Israeli athletes.

David Diffrient offers an insightful essay on the official documentary of the 1972 games Visions of Eight (1973), which consciously decided not to focus upon the violence of the winter games in Munich. Visions of Eight, produced by David L. Wolper and Stan Margulies, consists of eight different films directed by such outstanding international filmmakers as Arthur Penn, Milos Foreman, and John Schlesinger. Diffrient argues that these films, by concentrating upon the tension between cooperation and competition, best exemplify the Olympic spirit and experience.

Issues of class and sport are developed by Glen Jones and John Hughson, who discuss sport in British narrative films. Jones provides an excellent overview of how sport is an important part of British cinema; although often overshadowed by film criticism examining British crime and comedy genres. The second part of Jones's essay discusses The Girl with Brains in Her Feet (1997) as an example of how the issues of race and class may intersect in British society, athletics, and cinema. Hughson addresses issues of social class in his examination of director Tony Richardson's The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). Hughson places this well-known sporting film within the context of the "angry young man" genre developed by the work of John Osborne.

Issues of class, however, are hardly limited to British cinema. Class and its intersection with race is a subject of numerous acclaimed American films dealing with boxing. The boxing genre in the United States is noted for such fine films as Golden Boy (1939), Body and Soul (1947), Champion (1949), Raging Bull ( 1980), and Hurricane (2001 ), but perhaps the most beloved Hollywood fight film is Rocky (1976). …

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