General Sportswriting: My ten best sports films

By Paul Daffey

Rocky (1976): While the later Rocky sequels are rightly regarded as cinematic featherweights, the original Rocky outstrips all contenders in the battle for the heavyweight sporting film of the world. One of only two sports films to win the Oscar Award for Best Picture, it features a storyline that happens to feature in most successful films: a main character, down on his luck, who earns redemption after belting a side of beef in a Philadelphia cool-room. Anyone who hasn’t run up a flight of steps and held both arms to the sky, in the manner of Rocky Balboa on the steps of Philadelphia’s Art Museum, shouldn’t be reading this column.

Chariots of Fire (1981): The other film to win the Oscar Award for Best Picture is like the anti-Rocky. Instead of a main character who grunts and jabs on America’s mean streets, Chariots of Fire features a pair of British chaps who run along the beach in spiffing white underwear. Like the theme music for Rocky, the music for Chariots of Fire is hackneyed enough for television producers and football coaches to think it’s magnificent, but in the context of the film it’s actually quite stirring.

Seabiscuit (2003): The music for Seabiscuit is a bit syrupy for my taste, and the portrayal of racehorse owner Charles Howard as a father to America is overblown. But the tension of the race scenes are brilliant, building to a climax in which the runty Seabiscuit takes on the blueblood War Admiral in a match race that stops a nation. As with any film that features equine talent, the horses are much nicer than the people.

The Endless Summer (1966): In the late 1950s, Californian Bruce Brown began embarking on surfing safaris around the world with a couple of mates. In 1966, he spliced together the best footage from these trips, overlaid it with cheesy narration, and — like wow! — he had a hit. The film works because it’s a document of an era. All beaches are unspoilt. There’s not one sponsor’s logo, and nor are there crunching guitars in the soundtrack. Brown’s narration highlights the innocence of his venture; his descriptions of the lives of Senegalese fishermen are completely without guile.

When We Were Kings (1996): This documentary is a compelling depiction of the “rumble in the jungle” between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire, in 1974. In leading up to the fight, the documentary highlights black politics and the curious appeal to New York men of letters (George Plimpton and Norman Mailer) of a contest in which two men try to knock each other out.

Hoop Dreams (1994): The struggle of black American sportsmen to achieve glory from the ghetto underpins this documentary, which traces two Chicago teenagers through high school as they try to win a scholarship to university. Unlike most sporting films, triumph does not necessarily follow disappointment. It’s more human than that.

This Sporting Life (1963): The site for struggle shifts to the north of England, where a rugby-league player bears the burden of his industrial town while battling his own demons. Richard Harris’s performance in the lead role is informed by his early life in Limerick, in Ireland, where he played reasonable rugby union before becoming an actor. Many sports films suffer because the actors have limited, if any, sporting backgrounds.

The Hustler (1961): In keeping with George Plimpton’s small-ball theory (the smaller the ball, the better the writing), this film shows that the greatest tension can be wrought from the most physically undemanding game. Paul Newman plays Eddie Felson while Jackie Gleason’s character, Minnesota Fats, has one of the best names in film. Nobody who’s ever fancied himself on a ratty pub table would have resisted calling himself Minyip Fats or Anglesea Fats (insert appropriate place name) at some stage.

Eleven Men Against Eleven (1995): This  is a spoof about a soccer club under siege in an age when money is undermining traditional sporting values. The action ambles along at a muddling pace, which is a strong point. In a genre that that gets too worked up, such a tone is welcome.

The Club (1980): This film falls short of David Williamson’s play by the same name, only in part because it features too many Collingwood players jogging around with silly grins. It was made to depict the rise of businessmen over former players in club hierarchies, a development that caused huge ructions at most league clubs in the 1970s, but most notably Collingwood. It remains relevant now.

This is an edited version of a column that was run in The Sunday Age in Melbourne in 2004.

Comments

  1. Good list, although here’s a few I’d add from personal preference:

    – Raging Bull (1980) – In my opinion Rocky isn’t even the best boxing film, let alone the best sports film. “Raging Bull” might very well be the best of both. DeNiro and Joe Pesci are both awesome.

    – The Harder They Fall (1956) – Marginally behind “Raging Bull”, thinly-disguised fictionalisation of the career of Primo Carnera, heavyweight champ in the 1930s, and how his career was controlled by totally unscrupulous promoters. Humphrey Bogart’s last film, and becoming more relevant by the day.

    – The Fix (1997) – Excellent film about football corruption in England in the mid 1960s. Steve Coogan (known better as Alan Partridge) plays a slimy muck-raking journalist very, very effectively.

    – ID (1995) – Brutal depiction of football hooliganism in England in the 1980s. Can’t think of a better film about the world game.

    Otherwise, I’d definitely have “The Hustler” right up there, as well as “When We Were Kings”.

  2. What, no Flash Dance!!?

  3. I’m not a movie watcher, but the feeling of walking in to a BIG game is brilliantly depicted in “Purely Belter”. Some funny and some great moments.

  4. johnharms says:

    CADDYSHACK

  5. Mark,

    I suspect you might know more than me about these things. But I still like Rocky.

    Dips,

    Jennifer Beale has a certain sporting charm, but I can’t rate Flashdance as a sporting film.

    What a feeling!

    Daff

  6. John Mosig says:

    I love these 10 bests challenges. Not because I’m a rater of things, but because it gets you thinking. No question about it; I’d have The Club up there as No.1. That scene where the Geoff Haywood character (a very much younger & slimmer John Howard) gets the club president Jock (the iconic Frank Wilson) stoned and pours his heart out is a classic. I’d watch it just for that. No 2 would have to be The Big Men Fly – the Alan Hopwood play. They made a mini series of it back in the days of grainy black & white. I think you can still get it at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. I don’t know how it would stand up now, the stage craft of those days may be a bit dated, but the story of the times and The Game stand the test. Can anyone recall it? Frank Wilson was in that too.

    I have a soft spot for Frank. Years ago, before I was married, somewhere in the early 60’s, I picked up a stranded motorist along the Geelong Road beside a broken down 1938 Chevrolet. He was running late for a smoke night he was speaking at down in Sleepy Hollow. You guessed right. It was Frank Wilson between roles. I’ve been driven to the airport by Gerard Kennedy too. Australian Rules comes in at No. 3. If you haven’t seen it, get it out. Still in the WideBrownLand, No.4 is Phar Lap. I was raised by Depression parents who ‘rode’ Big Red home in those straightened times and grew up with stories of Phar Lap, Our Don and Captain Blood.

    From off-shore Somebody up There Likes Me – the story of the real Rocky – Rocky Graziano – starring Paul Newman. Sal Mineo is in and gets killed – again. I chose those that one because they all seem a bit of the same after that. Or a bit staged. By the way, has anybody seen a movie in which Sal Mineo doesn’t cop it in the neck – Rebel Without a Cause, The Longest Day, et al? Then comes The Longest Yard – the Burt Reynolds version. The opening scene where he outruns the cops and slips the Masarati into gear after stepping out onto the wharf – where the cops have run him to earth – and watches it drive itself into the drink is a classic scene – and maybe unique in that the chase is at the beginning of the film. I’m not sure about Chariots of The Gods. I have a continuity problem associating Pohmmies & sport in the same movie.

    But what about the 10 worst Sports Movies? I’ll give you No.1 and you can take it from there. Tom Cruise as a racing driver and a 22 year old Nicole Kidman as the brain surgeon who brings him back from the brink. Days of Thunder I think it was called. Thankfully I only saw the shorts.

  7. pauldaffey says:

    Mark and John,

    You’ve both mentioned some movies I’ll have to see. Will report back when I do.

    As for worst sports film? Not sure. I just know that the action scenes in most are terrible.

  8. Daff – re: Flashdance. You know how it is; you ‘ve just met a great girl, she asks you to the movies to see Flashdance. “Of course” you say.

    I would have watched Grease if she’d asked me.

  9. Paul,

    For sure, don’t get me wrong “Rocky” is still a damn good film. Regardless of what anyone thinks of Stallone’s thespian talents.

    It’s odd really, for a sport that isn’t the most socially acceptable, boxing has spawned more top notch films than any other sport I can think of.

    I can’t believe I overlooked “Caddyshack” – thanks for pointing that out John.

    What the hell, I’ll put in a top 10:

    1. Raging Bull (1980)
    2. The Hustler (1961)
    3. The Harder They Fall (1956)
    4. The Killing (1956)
    5. A Day at the Races (1937)
    6. Caddyshack (1980)
    7. Rollerball (1975)
    8. Rocky (1976)
    9. ID (1995)
    10. The Club (1980)

    I’m sure I’ve missed some good ones too.

  10. John Mosig says:

    Good one Mark. There’s a couple there on you list I’m going to chase up too. I’d like to add The Hustler, And while maybe not in the same league as the Marx Bros’ Day At The Races, Francis Goes To The Races was a classic of its times. I just loved that talking mule.

  11. Andrew Fithall says:

    My favourite sports film which is close to my favourite film of all time is Big Wednesday. I’m not a surfer. Watching it recently, it hasn’t aged well with the relatively slow moving plot, but how could you not enjoy a film that has Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt and Gary Busey as the leading characters. The surf scenes are done well.

    The problem most Australian rules films have is with the live action sequence. The Club, The Big Men Fly and even going back to The Salute to the Great McCarthy (film name – The Great McCarthy)all struggled when they tried to interleave their lead characters into the match-day situation.

    An exception is the recent made-for-television “Valentine’s Day”, set around the Rushworth Football Club (called the Bears rather than the Tigers). They do the live action very well, having the advantage of only having to re-create lower-level country football rather than AFL elite.

  12. I’m not a film watcher so rely heavily on hearsay and impressions. “Victory” seems to be widely regarded as awful. Fancy getting Pele, Bobby Moore and Ossie Ardiles (which side was he on?) and making a P.O.W. film with Sly and Michael Caine!

  13. coachnoodles says:

    A few that I love that that haven’t got a mention here are The Program which is a great look at college football in the USA. It’s got a fairly decent cast as well with James Cann, Halle Berry and Omar Epps. Field of Dreams is a classic as well and while Varsity Blues and Remember The Titans aren’t much more than vehicles used to promote teen starlets they are both great movies to watch.

    Bill Murray as Carl Spackler is my pick for best character in a sporting movie, he’s superb.

  14. Rick Kane says:

    In no particular order, here are a few other ‘great’ sports flicks. The Bad News Bears holds up very well. Recently showed it to my kids (all under 10) and they went with the story and watched it over and over again.

    1. Kingpin
    2. Fists of Fury
    3. Bull Durham
    4. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
    5. Somebody Up There Likes Me
    6. The Bad News Bears
    7. The Cincinnati Kid
    8. Breaking Away
    9. Baseball – A film by Ken Burns
    10. Best in Show

  15. Rick Kane says:

    I just remembered Shaolin Soccer by Stephen Chow. This is a sure contender for any Top 10 Sports fils list. He want on and made Kung Fu Hustle, which is also brilliant.

    Cheers

  16. pauldaffey says:

    Rick,

    Best in Show is about showing dogs.

    That’s cheating!

  17. Rick Kane says:

    Fair point Daff. Because pool (The Hustler) and poker (The Cincinnati Kid) had slipped under the radar I thought I’d try my luck with dog shows as sport. I was looking for the definitive darts movie but came up short. So I’ll substitute Best in Show with Crackerjack.

    Cheers

    Just remembered another that contender – The Wrestler

  18. coachnoodles says:

    Crackerjack is fantastic. Outclasses The Club in my book as the best aussie sports movie.

  19. Well, I gotta say most responses are paying tribute to American and British schmaltz( excuse the spelling). I was waiting for someone to nominate the Harry Potter franchise.Some great Quiddich scenes there!

    A few of you should get away from your Bill Collins all time favourites. go to your local video shop and hire as a weekly , the Aussie film, ‘The Final Winter’ . I am no Rugby fan, but the issues the film works through as League tried to change its approach to thuggery post Price, Beetson etc, is so relevent to how we footy lovers look back so lovingly at the ‘sensational seventies’ .

    Gotta be in the top 10. ( Bad News Bears , my God)

  20. Nik Stace says:

    Any Given Sunday – an Oscar Stone film about American Football was extremely well done. Brewsters Millions had a baseball backdrop to it. Dare I suggest “A League of their own” ?? :-)

  21. Phil Dimitriadis says:

    Great list Daff. I would have included ‘Fever Pitch’, ‘Any Given Sunday’,’The Wrestler’,’Goal’ and ‘Bodyline’ even if the last was a miniseries. For those with a penchant for quality toilet humour, ‘Baseketball’ and ‘Dodgeball’ are also entertaining.

  22. Pamela Sherpa says:

    When younger my kids enjoyed ‘Cool Runnings’ -the one about the Jamaican bobsled team.

  23. Pamela Sherpa says:

    My kids enjoyed ‘Cool Runnings’ -the one about the Jamaican bobsled team.

  24. uncle tony says:

    I have just finished watching the Legend of Bagger Vnce on fox not bad!! for a golf story. My love of racing tells me that Phar Lap was not a bad film (even true)Ive always wished that Phar Lap could be a cricketer or footballer because we would be still talking about his amazing achievemnts akin to 200 goal season and a better than Bradman average of 200

  25. Danielle says:

    OMG COOL RUNNINGS!!!
    thats one of the funniest movies!!!
    what about High School Musical?
    i know its a romance but theres basketball in it too!!

  26. Rick Kane says:

    In defence (and pride – say it loud, say it proud) of my rating of Bad News Bears:

    1. Walter Matthau. That is reason enough! In BNB, he coaches an under 11s baseball team. Matthau plays an alcoholic. Prior to a coaching session with his team he cracks open a beer and pours a shot of whiskey into the can before taking his first sip. Now he’s ready to coach.
    2. In one scene he climbs a tree to talk to a kid (who has stripped down to his underpants) who is pissed off with how badly the team played. BNB was made in 1976. In our PC times I couldn’t imagine that scene even getting written. In BNB the scene has no paedophile connotations; it is simply about an adult and a child trying to understand a sporting dilemma from both perspectives.
    3. The film does not celebrate the dominant sporting paradigm of winning, whatever it takes. Rather, it celebrates enjoying the journey and the people you take the ride with … and it does so with a great closing scene.

    That reminds me of another great sports movie – Cars.

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