Not all sports movies are created equal; for every Bull Durham, there’s an Air Bud 4: Seventh Inning Fetch. The most compelling films are usually less about the outcome of the big game, and more about characters’ struggles off the field. That is certainly the case in each of the films listed below, some of which, to be fair, can only be classified as “sports movies” under the broadest definition of the genre. If you’re a runner and cinema enthusiast, the following should be considered mandatory viewing.
Chariots of Fire (1981)
"Baywatch" montages notwithstanding, Chariots of Fire has arguably the most iconic scene of people running on a beach. Rather than bronzed and glabrous Malibu lifeguards, the striders here are Great Britain’s finest young (male) athletes readying themselves for the 1924 Olympics. Among them are the film’s protagonists, Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, two heroes of British sprinting whose respective struggles with devotional obligation and latent anti-Semitism form the core of the narrative. Chariots of Fire won an Oscar for Best Picture and is catnip for Anglophiles: we get scenes of the Edinburgh cityscape from Arthur’s Seat, Eton College, St. Andrews and, of course, the White Cliffs of Dover. Also, that Vangelis theme . . .
The Robber (2010)
Imagine an existentialist remake of Point Break and you might get something like The Robber, which is based on the life of notorious Austrian distance runner delinquent Johann Kastenberger, aka “Shotgun Ronnie.” In the ‘80s, Kastenberger held up banks wearing a Ronald Reagan mask, murdered people, and won major road races in Austria . . . as one does. The Robber is a thinly fictionalized portrait of this fascinating character, who allegedly still holds the course record for a well known Austrian mountain race. It is to the film’s credit that it doesn’t try to explain Kastenberger’s pathology, instead focusing its energy on riveting chase (and race) scenes.
Marathon Man (1976)
Much of American cinema in the 1970s was pretty bleak and Marathon Man is no exception. Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier star in this thriller about stolen diamonds, corrupt government agents, Nazi war criminals, and an unwitting Columbia grad student. This has to be one of the most paranoid movies ever made, not least because its villain embodies everyone’s worst fear: a dentist who, um, doesn’t have your best interests in mind. The feeling of dread is exacerbated right from the start by Michael Small’s ominous score, in which the composer sought to instill “a kind of a scream which went not only with terror and torture but also with the limits pushed by being a marathon runner.” The film opens with archival footage of Ethiopian marathon legend Abede Bikila competing in the ’64 Olympics and segues to Dustin Hoffman warily doing laps around the Central Park Reservoir. He is being chased. He just doesn’t know it yet.
The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962)
From Muhammad Ali to Nick Symmonds, the athlete-as-rebel trope has become ubiquitous over the years. What distinguishes Smith, the hero of Alan Sillitoe’s short story “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” is that he is not a sports star, but a working-class youth in post-WW2 England caught up in petty crime. He ends up in juvie after an ill-fated bakery heist, where the authorities discover and seek to exploit his talent for long-distance running. Both the short story and the film beautifully convey the way running provides an escape that is a much mental as it is physical. “As soon as I take that first flying leap into the frosty grass of an early morning when even birds haven't the heart to whistle, I get to thinking, and that's what I like,” Sillitoe wrote. “I go my rounds in a dream, turning at lane or footpath corners without knowing I'm turning, leaping brooks without knowing they're there.” How do you portray something like that on screen? Like this.
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