Film: An unreliable overview of sport on the screen

Seeing as I’ve been discussing the topic of sports films, I thought I might compile some personal favourites. I warn in advance, this list is highly subjective and far from comprehensive. I’ve included documentaries as well as cinematic features. So, in no particular order…


As the most primal and basic of sporting conflicts, boxing has been one of the perennial fascinations of cinema. Some of the earliest films of all featured boxing matches, and it was a favoured subject in the heyday of film noir.

As a favourite, I would probably give the nod to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), an often grim tale of real life middleweight Jake LaMotta; a man who only really functioned inside the ring. Despite the brutality of much of the story, the film also captures the beauty that is inherent in the craft.

Muhammad Ali is a regular subject. He had a go at playing himself in The Greatest (1977), long before Will Smith saddled up for Ali (2001). Better than both of these are the two documentaries When We Were Kings (1996) and Thrilla In Manilla (2009). The first, the story of The Rumble in the Jungle, will be well known as a motivational film to many sports fans and players alike. The latter presents an altogether different view of Ali, mainly through the eyes of his great (and bitter) rival Joe Frazier. Both films are fascinating social documents of their time as well.

Another great social document of a very different time is Ken Burns’ Unforgiveable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2004). Clocking in at an epic 214 minutes, this tells the tale of the first black heavyweight champion’s rise to the title at the turn of the 20th century, and the reaction this provoked from white society.


America’s summer obsession, it’s another Hollywood perennial.

Ken Burns steps up to the plate again with his documentary series Baseball (1994). Nine episodes totalling over 1100 minutes in length, this is one for the truly committed; but it serves as a compelling history of the game, its characters, and the society that fostered it. Tough to get, as it was never shown in full on Australian TV.

Back in the fictional realm, baseball films have proven to be the one safe harbour in Kevin Costner’s otherwise chequered career. Bull Durham (1988) saw him playing romantic foil to Susan Sarandon’s sexy, ultimate fan. Whilst his Field of Dreams (1989) launched a thousand clichés (“if you build it…”), I prefer his For Love of the Game (1999), where he’s a pitcher facing retirement, a struggling relationship and the minor matter of a potential perfect pitching game.

John Sayles’ Eight Men Out (1988) tells the story of one of sport’s greatest scandals, the Chicago White Sox throwing the 1919 World Series.

A classic anti-hero is portrayed in Cobb (1994), the tale of a young writer’s attempt to help the legendarily ferocious Ty Cobb write a biography before he dies. Cobb was one of the most vexatious personalities to ever step on a field, and Tommy Lee Jones gives one of his best performances in the title role.

American football

Although barely about sport, Horse Feathers (1932) finds the Marx Brothers in their lunatic prime.  You can also remember when Burt Reynolds was an honest to goodness leading man in The Longest Yard (1974). Don’t bother with the Adam Sandler remake.


This Sporting Life (1963) saw the directing debut of Lindsay Anderson and Richard Harris’ first starring role. Wheelchair rugby is revealed in all its glory in the documentary Muderball (2005).

Australian football

My favourite is Australian Rules (2002), a story of growing up, race relations and footy in rural South Australia. The Club (1980) has its drama sabotaged by highly unconvincing on-field action, although the noble attempt to turn Rene Kink into a character actor provides much humour.


Two extremes in style here. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006) is an art film shot from Zinedine Zidane’s perspective through the course of a match- not to everyone’s tastes. Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer (2001) is an antic, hilarious, real life comic book of a film. Don’t bother trying to follow a plot, just go for the ride.


As discussed elsewhere, the two original test nations have a paltry dramatic film heritage. The Bodyline (1984) TV miniseries is the only notable contribution to my knowledge. It is another work to suffer from the lead actors’ obvious lack of sporting skill in action scenes.

Indian cinema has fortunately come to the aid of the noble game, as that country’s obsession with the sport sees it given relatively frequent airings. The most notable to my eyes is Lagaan (2001), an epic tale of colonialism and cricket, with all the usual Bollywood touches. It is harder to notice the actors’ skill levels amidst all the singing and dancing.


The Wrestler (2008) provided Mickey Rourke a with a badly needed career boost. Like many boxing films, it’s a cautionary tale of knowing when to quit, and why some men can’t. For hardcore fans, the documentary Beyond The Mat (1999) is a great behind-the-scenes look at top line pro wrestling.

Politicians in Sport

What they got up to before making the world safe for rampant capitalism. Ronnie Reagan gave one for the Gipper in Knute Rockne, All American (1940). Once you’ve seen a dope smoking, skirt chasing, pre-Conan Arnie Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron (1977), you’ll have no trouble understanding why California can’t balance its budget nowadays.

Ice Hockey

Paul Newman shows that violence can work after all in Slap Shot (1977).

Olympic Games

Leni Reifenstahl’s Olympia (1938) is a seductively lovely paean  to the beauty of the athletic form. Unfortunately, it also gives you a queasy insight into some of the underlying aesthetics of Nazism.

All of this and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. And what are one man’s opinions anyway?

Let the doors be thrown open and the opinions of Almanac community be heard.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. Top list, John.

    A minor gripe is that I reckon the onfield stuff in Australian Rules lets down the rest of the film, not much but enough. Agree about the onfield stuff in The Club, which is very hammy.

    Note to self: see Lagaan, and must see This Sporting Life. I just can’t see myself ever finding the time to watch the Ken Burns series, though.

    While you were gallivanting around Australia last year, Richard Jones wrote his top ten sports films.

    I put up my top ten as well.

  2. John, last year while studying Nazism in History i watched Leni Riefenstahl’s triumph of the will.
    i sat there speechless and captivated the whole time…i was so amazed by Leni’s technique.
    still get goosebumps just thinking about it.


  3. Breaking Away is a fine film about college cycling starring Dennis Christopher, Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley, with Paul Dooley stealing scenes as Dennis Christopher’s dad.

    Rollerball is fantastic. Does it count? The stylish Norman Jewison version starring James Caan, not the John McTiernan fiasco from a few years ago.

    By the way. The Longest Yard, also known as The Mean Machine, was remade as The Mean Machine, but as a soccer film with Vinnie Jones and David Hemmings reprising the roles of Burt Reynolds and Eddie Albert.

  4. Andrew Fithall says


    Can’t believe you left League of Their Own out of your baseball list. That Madonna sure could play.

    On the AFL side, as you and Daff say, they always have touble with on-field action. I reckon an exception was the tele-movie Valentine’s Day (2008)set in Rushworth and starring Rhys Muldoon, but not as a player. Recreating lower level football can look so much more realistic.

  5. John Butler says

    Just goes to show the wealth of riches in the Almanac archive. I was unaware of the other lists. I obviously have some further reading ahead of me.

    Paul, I think the football action in Australian Rules is passable (just).

    Tony T, Breaking Away only missed because I didn’t want to have to serialise this baby. And if wrestling counts, then so does Rollerball.

    Danni, Leni was a brilliant visual stylist. It’s a pity so much of her work served such an ignoble purpose.

    Andrew, Madonna sure is a player! I’m just not sure about her baseball. Now that you’ve mentioned it, I have dim recollections of Valentine’s Day. It can’t have made that much of an impact on me.

  6. Phil Dimitriadis says

    Nice list JB,

    Beyond the Mat and The Wrestler were brilliant if bleak. Fever Pitch and The Damned United are also two wonderful soccer films. I’d love to see a Fever Pitch type film made for Aussie Rules to capture the passion of fandom. This Sporting Life stands the test of time. Richard Harris is superb.

  7. Richard Naco says

    Triumph of the Will was superlative (if worrying). And the Ken Burns series is simply another Ken Burns series (read: “masterpiece”).

    I’m amazed that basketball has been overlooked here as a genre, and the quite marvellous Hoosiers as a film in any of the lists. I once used it as a motivational tool for a rep basketball team, and the kids responded by immediately nicknaming their enigmatic star ‘Jimmy’ (despite my team being Under 18 Girls). I found it quite amazing, perhaps because I related to the coach (performed so well by Gene Hackman).

  8. Boxing
    Actually Mohammed Ali played himself even earlier than “The Greatest”. Back when he was Cassius Clay, before he had even fought Liston, he appeared in a movie called “Requiem for a Heavyweight” where he played the young boxer on the way up who defeats the main character who is an ageing boxer on the way down. Its many years since I saw the movie but I remember it as pretty good.

    There was an excellent movie made about 1970 called “Great White Hope” which was actually about Jack Johnson and starred James Earl Jones as the Galveston Giant.


    John Sayles is close to my favourite American director and “Eight Men Out” is one of the all time greatest sports movies

    Australian Football

    “Australian Rules” is a great movie from two very good books. I like “The Club” more than you do, John, possibly because I am a Collingwood supporter and also because I think Graham Kennedy was a great comic actor. However there was another film made about Australian football which was an absolute Barry Crocker. It was called “Salute to the Great McCarthy”. It was adapted from a mediocre novel by Barry Oakley and turned into a much worse film by David Baker who was not exactly Fred Schepsi, Bruce Beresford or Gillian Armstrong. Despite having quite a good cast and a whole lot of South Melbourne footballers as extras it was an embarrassment.

    Olympic Games

    “Chariots of Fire” might be a bit cheesy and the theme has been murdered by overuse but actually it was still a pretty good film. If you want to see a bad film about the Olympics, see Goldengirl (1980) or worse still a film called Geordie about a wee boy in Scotland who buys a mail order bodybuilding course and becomes a giant hammerthrower and represents Great Britain at the Melbourne Olympics. I saw it as a nine year old and considered myself too mature for the film!

  9. John,
    Some of the responses above almost prompt one into compiling a list of the worst sports films ever made: a masterpiece such as “Major League’ starring Charlie Sheen and Tom Berenger would sit most comfortably on that list. Then there would be “Escape to victory” in which Sly Stallone was the POW goal-keeper. But definitely the worst sports-based film I ever saw was an ice-hockey movie starring Rob Lowe (prior to his X-rated movie capers) presciently named “Youngblood”…..the horror, the horror….

  10. John Butler says

    Ah, the memories flood back.

    Dave, I remember Geordie on the TV when I was a wee nipper.

    As for boxing films, they could get an article all to themselves.

    Smokie, when you’re talking Sly and Rob, it’s almost like a stamp of quality. It seems such a long time ago that (post Rocky) Sly was an up and coming auteur. Escape was one of the nails in the coffin. Though I’m sure he’s crying all the way to the bank.

    Phil, despite reading the book, I’ve never seen the film of Fever Pitch. About time I did.

    Richard, Hoosiers is another one I’ve missed. Are you trying to tell me it’s better than Teen Wolf?

  11. Ken Burn’s Baseball was a bit over-reverent for my liking.

    Interestingly, or not, it was a bit of a stuff-up when it was shown here on ABC in the late 90s. They cut it to the bejeesus.

    The format for each episode had a short preview at the start of each episode which showed what would happen in the episode. This is ok in theory, but on the ABC you would get a preview of something that was ultimately not shown.

    Take the episode about the 60s, A Whole New Ballgame. The intro included a mention of the “Miracle Mets” who won the Series in 1969, but just as the episode was getting to the end of the 60s up popped the credits and you never got to see said Mets.

    Can’t remember what the original timing was, but the IMDb says the show had nine episodes which ran for a total of 1140 minutes. Doing the maths… sorry, since baseball is an American pastime, doing the math, that works out at 126.667 minutes per episode. Those extra 6.667 minutes are pretty inconvenient, even for Our ABC, so you can imagine the editors had their scissors ready.

    Incidentally, I saw Curt Flood referred to the other day as Curtis Flood, which is like someone calling Ted Whitten Edward, and which leads me to believe the writer in question knew next to rock-all about baseball and had just done a quick spot of Wiki-work.

  12. I challenged the ABC on their cuts to Burns’ “Baseball” at the time. The ABC spokesperson told me that they received an “international” edition edited down to one hour episodes by the American distributors.

    Whoever did the editing knew Sweet Fanny Adams about Baseball because they edited out the whole “Black Sox” affair, which is a bit like producing a history of Australian Cricket and not mentioning the Bodyline series.

  13. Dave,

    Spot on.

    I demand that next time John Harmes is on Offsiders, he stands up on the couch and rips off his skivvy to reveal a tattoo denouncing the ABC: “Such Is Television!”

  14. And since you mention it: my post on The Great McCarthy.

  15. Andrew Fithall says

    Basketball films Richard?

    I recall seeing on television in the early 1970s a film called, I think, Ray Bent. Can’t remeber whether it was high school or college level, but the premise was that the player had a perfect shooting action. I tried to find some information about the film but google offered nothing.

    A basketball film I enjoy: White Men Can’t Jump.

  16. John Pleased that you gave Slapshot a mention.The performance by Paul Newman as the captain/coach is outstanding . Recommewnded viewing and certainly worth a trip to the video store .

  17. Richard Naco says

    (rofl John)

    Let’s just say that Hoosiers is to Teen Wolf (anything) what The Godfather series is to Bugsy Malone.

    The Basketball Diaries is also supposed to be pretty good, but I’m too engrossed by reading all three editions of The Almanac these days to catch up with any new or missed sports movies.

    Some of you lot can seriously pose with the prose, huh?

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