For our more sports-inclined readers, the current Olympic season will be sixteen days of inspiring athleticism and sportsmanship. For us at Mr Rumsey’s, it’s a good excuse to revisit some favourite Olympic-themed films, both old and new.
Helmed by the endlessly controversial, yet undeniably genius documentarian Leni Riefenstahl, this record of the 1936 Berlin Games received funding from the German government in order for it to act as a testament to the power of National Socialism. Those willing to look past the lionisation of Adolf Hitler may find historical interest in footage of Jesse Owens, surely one of the all-time great figures of the Olympics (see Race, below), and anyone with an interest in filmmaking will marvel at Riefenstahl’s seemingly endless catalogue of stylistic and technical innovations.
Tokyo Olympiad (1965)
Almost the reverse side of the coin to Olympia, Tokyo Olympiad is another propaganda piece, this time a gentler, more humanistic one dedicated to showcasing Japan’s economic, social, moral and political recovery from the troubled period of its involvement in the Second World War and its aftermath. Viewed together, both films provide a showcase in how the Olympics are seen as a symbol of triumph by nations the world over, whether for the dark dream of Nazism or the bright light of international co-operation.
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Two Brit athletes, one a Christian and one a Jew, compete in 1924’s Paris Olympics. The solid craftsmanship and serious explorations of faith and anti-Semitism set the tone for a generation of British movies, and won it the Best Picture Oscar, though the po-faced film has a tendency now to look as dated as its score, which could easily have been a B-side by Japan.
Cool Runnings (1993)
Of all the classic underdog sports movies, this one may be both the most classic and the most underdog. Cool Runnings is the tale of a bobsled team at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary (see also: Eddie the Eagle, below) representing Jamaica, a country conspicuously lacking in one key element of the sport: snow. Good-natured, funny and endlessly watchable, it has since become an old favourite on television.
Primarily a documentarian and best known for Hoop Dreams, Steve James helmed this biopic of American runner Steve Prefontaine, who tragically died in a car accident at age 24, leaving an unfulfilled potential – as well as several American records – in his wake. Man of the moment Jared Leto received his breakthrough here, with strong support from the tireless R. Lee Ermey.
Kurt Russel returned to his Disney roots here to play Herb Brooks, coach of the American ice hockey team, in the run-up to their historic victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, dubbed the “Miracle on Ice”. The real-life Brooks died during the shooting of the picture, which was dedicated to his memory on release.
The Ringer (2005)
Controversial before its release, this Farrelly Brothers-produced comedy provides a surprisingly sweet, respectful look at the Special Olympics, through the story of a “ringer”, portrayed by Johnny Knoxville, who affects a mental disability in order to fix the games. The key thing here is that the comedy always comes not at the intellectual shortcomings of Special Olympians, but at the moral shortcomings of those who would try to fix such an event – just like the 2000 Spanish team that inspired the movie.
The least celebratory of all the films on this list, Spielberg’s unflinching examination of true events manages to avoid his customary schmaltz and is one of his most overlooked pictures. The 1972 Munich games are the setting for the assassination of eleven Israeli athletes by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. The film devotes more of its runtime to the aftermath of the massacre and the Israeli government’s response, but its depiction of the real-life events, that overshadowed what ought to be a joyous occasion, is hard to forget.
A grim, bleak, difficult account of the life of John du Pont (Steve Carell), a millionaire who established a training programme for American wrestlers led by Olympian brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) Schultz. What follows is a lengthy account of madness and eventual murder that won the praise of critics, but missed out on several Oscars. Like Black Swan or Whiplash, it is an account of the personal and moral cost of achieving greatness, and may serve as an antidote to the many inspiring true stories featured here.
Eddie the Eagle (2016)
After almost twenty years in development, this treatment of the life of lovable loser Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards follows a formula similar to Cool Runnings, which receives a shoutout in the film. Edwards is a British ski-jumper who makes up in enthusiasm what he lacks in natural talent, and the film connects the points in the expected underdog story with a sublime sweetness and well-handled physical comedy from rising star Taron Egerton, with nice chemistry coming from his coach Hugh Jackman.
The cleverly-punning title reveals the main concern of this biopic, which follows African-American Jessie Owens through his victory at the 1936 Berlin games, much to the consternation of the Nazi higher-ups, who had hoped the event would prove a testament to Aryan superiority (see Olympia, above). The film’s traditional structure might not make for anything as astonishing as the real life of its central figure, but the races themselves are exhilarating.