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Where Are The Great British Sports Movies?

Posted on Friday July 20, 2012, 12:25 by Helen O'Hara in Empire States
Where Are The Great British Sports Movies?

We've just put together a list of the Greatest Sports Movies Ever Made, and Blighty does not come out of it well. I've just gone through and counted the number of British films on the list and, if we're talking films about sport in the UK there are six (possibly seven if you count Escape To Victory as British, which most people seem to want to). For contrast there are eight baseball films. And what I'm wondering is, why the heck is this?

Now obviously we didn't include every British sports movie - Bend It Like Beckham didn't make the cut, nor When Saturday Comes or the co-British Goal! trilogy. But even if you make the case that those or others should have been on the list somewhere, I'm going to point and laugh at you if you think we missed any British films that would have made the top ten. The UK is a country where people are nuts about sport and where - more importantly - we don't actually require our sporting heroes to be particularly heroic in order to admire them (as anyone who's flown in to Belfast's George Best Airport can attest), so there's no reason we couldn't make a film about an iconoclast.

There are big personalities in British sports; there have been scandals and miracle stories and underdogs so spectacularly low they were subterranean. The British have a peculiar fondness for losers who tried their best - which makes for a good film, as Rocky can confirm - and should be better positioned to make great sports stories without the vainglorious emphasis on victory that we so often associate with our American brethren. So is it that desire to win that gives the Yanks their edge? Do the British have such a great sense of perspective that we can't rustle up the enthusiasm for a sports movie? Then why was Chariots Of Fire such a success? And if the British have no insane desire to win how do you explain the way that TV pundits and red top papers talk about the English soccer team in every international tournament?

What's more, a sports movie doesn't require a massive budget or even a massive star - so it's not like the superhero blockbuster genre, where we're always going to languish behind. Yet they're the ones making almost all the great movies about also-rans and coulda-been-contenders as well as the ones about champions, and I find it odd.

Is the sports movie somehow quintessentially an American phenomenon? We had a good root through our foreign film files looking for great sporting achievements and couldn't find much; it's hard to imagine the French getting behind anything that requires so much effort* and while we'd love to see the Italians try to distill their attitude to football in an Any Given Sunday style, it doesn't appear to have been done brilliantly (or have I missed one?).

Or is there some other reason that the British can't do it? Is it because only boxing and baseball lead to reliably great movies and we seem to pay less attention to those than we do football (soccer), which would appear to be more-or-less unfilmable (at least in a good way)? Why has American football sparked so many great movies while rugby's given us one film on this list (This Sporting Life) and the less-than-perfect Invictus? Do those pads help in some way after all?

I'm not expert in this; I've watched far more sports movies than I have sports. But surely, surely, there's more scope for greatness out there than we've seen so far, whether comedy or drama. Right?

* No disrespect to French sports people, who are self-evidently pretty darn skilled and could snap me like a twig. But for French filmmakers, the subject doesn't seem to have a wild appeal.

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1 Nottingham Kathleen
Posted on Friday July 27, 2012, 16:40
What about Touching The Void? It's sporty, tense, brilliant and, as far as I know, British. Shame on you for missing it out!

2 Helen OHara
Posted on Friday July 27, 2012, 17:36
I'm not sure climbing qualifies as a sport so much as a passtime. I mean, are there many records and such?

3 redcarpet
Posted on Saturday July 28, 2012, 01:02
I think the reason boxing, american football, and baseball have so many good films is because the sports are intense action, over a short period of time, followed by breaks in play. This seems to make filming the action far easier than other sports that have a flow to them like football, or rugby. It also allows periods of dialogue to establish tactics/set the scene for the next action sequence, rather than just a shout of "pass it" - which is probably all you get in a football film.

4 Whistler
Posted on Saturday July 28, 2012, 08:44
Touching The Void is a documentary about climbing; definitely not a sports movie. It is tense, brilliant and British though :)

5 oddzag
Posted on Sunday July 29, 2012, 10:39
What about Wimbledon? Surely that counts?

6 oddzag
Posted on Sunday July 29, 2012, 10:44
Also, just throwing it out there, and I know it's awful, but for me it falls into the so-awful-it's-good genre but Blackball - the comedy film about Bowls.

7 BenTramer
Posted on Sunday July 29, 2012, 23:23
They should remake Escape To Victory with Christian Bale, Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and Lionel Messi.

8 Helen OHara
Posted on Monday July 30, 2012, 11:13
I know Wimbledon and Black Balls are British; they didn't make the list because they aren't very good.

I still don't think climbing's a sport, per se. There's no scoring, there are no rules. It's an intensely physical activity and involves real achievement, but I'm not sure it's quite a sport.

9 twiddle
Posted on Monday July 30, 2012, 12:21
As a kid I got confused and though Chariots of Fire was about breaking the 4 minute mile. Ok it isn't but that would be brilliant, it's all period costume, lots of grit about Britain down on its luck in the post war years and then the actual spectacle of a man breaking what was thought to be an unbreakable barrier. It would be quite cheap to do too. Someone please make it, maybe Danny Boyle?

10 kisswithatear
Posted on Monday July 30, 2012, 14:36
What about, and I know this isn't a great example but still, Mean Machine. Ok so it's based on an American film, The Longest Yard, but it hits every trope and still manages to be quite enjoyable.

It and Bend it Like Beckham proves that football can be put to celluloid and still be quite entertaining. Mean Machine capturing the sense of humour and attack of the sport.

I think football could be a great sport for British films. We live and breathe it in most cities especially in the North. It's brash and over confident but can also be stunningly entertaining with some fantastic characters. You're right when you say there should be more. But there needs to be considerable film talent behind the camera as well as in front of it.

We basically need a British Steven Soderbergh... Someone who can bring a touch of class to any genre. But if it worked I think it could be amazing.

11 JfwAalbers
Posted on Monday July 30, 2012, 19:03
I would like to draw your attention to, in my opinion, the best soccer film ever made. It's a Dutch classic called All Stars (Jean van de Velde, 1997). Crucially, it is not so much a film about the sport itself, but about the culture surrounding it. It is a story about a team of twenty/thirty somethings who keep getting together in the weekends to play in their amateur competition, even though life itself intervenes. If you can find a version with English subtitles I highly recommend it.

12 loafroaster
Posted on Tuesday July 31, 2012, 12:07
The British tend to stick to television when it comes to Sporting fiction; there's numerous examples of decent efforts, the most recent being the Beeb's rowing drama.

13 Gouken
Posted on Tuesday July 31, 2012, 14:22
I think what is lacking here is the ambition to go all out and make a good film. British film industry is still too caught up on making films about East London gangsters with Danny Dyer, or about a poor youth trying to escape the gangs and drugs in the estates in Hackney.
While you can get good movies from a relatively small budget, how many times do you want to see the same story? Wild Bill had good reviews but I just couldn't be bothered with yet another cockney gangster film.
Besides, as redcarpet up there said baseball and american football make for good cinematic sports as you cut out the boring bits (lots of them) or use them for exposition, comentantors hicking up the drama etc..
But pool/snooker, boxing are big in the UK and they made the list. And Ice Hockey is as flowing as rugby or football (proper). Horse racing can make for some good on screen action, so would motorsport, sailing or cricket. Just kidding... you could have a Bruckheimer produced, Michael Bay directed, with story by Crhis Nolan starring Tom Hardy and Tony Jaa film about cricket and it would still be boring.
The problems I think are 1) lack of ambition - try to go big for a change. Harry Potter and Bond did it and succeeded 2) lack of expansion (you wouldn't see a brit boxer with his face bashed in shouting for Adrian would you?) and 3) lack of vision (Enough with the the same films over and over again)

14 alexfrith
Posted on Thursday August 2, 2012, 11:59
Ping Pong, the Japanese teen drama with table tennis at its centre, is pretty great.
Someone should get Michael Winterbottom on the case for a great British sports film.

There's a great horror/comedy short to be made about a rowing eight where the crew get picked off one by one until the poor bastard at the backis pulling the boat on his/her own, unaware of the carnage behind him.

15 gambit21
Posted on Friday August 3, 2012, 11:44
Sorry to have to weigh in on the climbing as a sport issue now but it is a sport. Touching the void does not deal with rock climbing or just 'climbing' really - it is a mountaineering film. Rock climbing does have international competitions with a scoring process - it is being trialled as a possible olympic sport as well. I agree Touching the Void is not a sports movie - but climbing in some forms is a sport. E11 - the documentary about the hardest rock climb in the world featuring Dave Macleod I would count as a sports documentary. If you ever catch a rock climbing competition such as indoor sport climbing (ok so that might be difficult as it is never on tv or anything) you would see that it is a sport with rules, points, grades etc. As there are many forms of climbing I wouldnt discount climbing as a whole as a sport. I know this has little to do with film so apologies for banging on about it.

16 TheSomnambulist
Posted on Saturday August 4, 2012, 08:28
I see your point. It's not our forte is it. Pity. I'm sure there's a five part saga about England winning the ashes in 2005 out there somewhere...

17 pleakhouse
Posted on Sunday August 5, 2012, 16:33
You forgot Quidditch.

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