Jones Files: My ten best sports films

By Richard Jones

Raging Bull (1980): Robert DeNiro at his absolute best as world middleweight champion Jake LaMotta in an era when boxers in this division were the best ever. The self-destructive, paranoid Jake has two memorable fights with Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes), but he’s dysfunctional in family matters. As  Jake, DeNiro won the Oscar for Best Actor.

Chariots of Fire (1981): one of the best music scores for any film, sports-oriented or not. Won Oscars for best picture, best original music score and best screenplay. Two British track sprinters — Jewish man Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and devout Christian Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) — prepare for their events at the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics. Will Eric contest the final on a Sunday, that’s the burning question.

Million Dollar Baby (2004): poor, working class waitress Maggie (Hilary Swank) wants to cash in on the dollars available for top women boxers. She coaxes gym owner and fight trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood) to coach and manage her. In this she gains the support of Frankie’s old partner, “Scrap-Iron” Eddie (Morgan Freeman). Won Oscars for Best Film and Best Actress (Swank) at the 2005 Academy Awards.

Bend It Like Beckham (2002): amazing to consider Atonement’s stunning Keira Knightley as sidekick “Jules” Paxton to orthodox Sikh, Jessminder (Parminder Nagra). This is a delightful film set mainly in west London about talented, aspiring women rising above gender and race stereotypes to play football. That’s football as in soccer, the world game.

When We Were Kings (1996): a documentary actually, depicting the lead-up, the training sessions, the fight itself and the aftermath of 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle — Muhammad Ali v George Foreman. Zaire dictator Mobutu Sese Seko had agreed to have the world heavyweight title fight staged in his country and his countrymen and women adopted Ali as one of their own.

Seabiscuit (2003): the Depression-era story of a champion little racehorse whose performances lifted the spirits of Americans, particularly those on the west coast, during a trying time. The 1938 match race between California’s champion Seabiscuit and the eastern seaboard’s Triple Crown star War Admiral rates as one of the greatest one-on-one contests in any sport — and drew a massive audience.

Cool Runnings (1993): unlikely to find Jamaicans from a tropical environment trying out for a bobsled spot in the Winter Olympics. But that’s just what this film is about. Four Jamaicans enlist disgraced bobsled trainer Irving Blitzer (John Candy) to prepare them for their adopted sport, not to mention the minus 25 degree temperatures in Olympic city, Calgary.

Ben Hur (1959): is chariot racing at Rome’s Colosseum a sport? You bet it is, when you see old Charlton Heston (well, not so old back in the late 1950s) wheeling his four nags around a tricky course. The pulsating chariot race is one of the high points of a terrific film which garnered no less than 11 Oscars, among them best film, best director (William Wyler) and best actor for Heston.

The Hustler (1961): playing pool might be regarded as a leisure time activity, rather than a sport. Nevertheless Paul Newman’s “Fast” Eddie Felson eventually beats the odds, his own character faults and the world champion Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason) in the title replay after losing the original 40-hour marathon. Has there ever been a better name for an anti-hero than the one assigned to Gleason’s character?

Phar Lap (1983): the story of Australasia’s greatest horse. We must be the only nation on earth which deifies a racehorse.  Takes us from the time the scrawny, wart-infested youngster is lowered from a trans-Tasman ship, past his Victoria Derby and Melbourne Cup wins to eventual death in America. Tom Burlinson plays legendary racing personality Tommy Woodcock (first Phar Lap’s strapper, later his trainer) while Ron Liebman is owner Dave Davis.

Couldn’t fit in the Top Ten: The Club (1980). I actually preferred David Williamson’s evocation of the on- and off-field antics of the Collingwood Football Club as a stage play, rather than as a film.

In April, 2008, I saw a Premier Theatre Touring Company production of The Club at Bendigo’s Capital Theatre. John Wood played the coach and Dennis Moore was the embattled club president. It was much more satisfying than the film starring Jack Thompson and the late Graham Kennedy in the coach and president roles.

NOTES: The films I’ve listed were all seen in cinemas, not as DVDs or videos. My wife and I see between 25-30 films annually and I write a fortnightly film review column in Bendigo’s The Advertiser on behalf of the community-owned Eaglehawk Star cinema.

And no, I didn’t see Rocky or any of the follow-ups. I can’t stand Sly Stallone basically because, from the few clips I’ve seen, I cannot understand more than two words from any sentence he utters. Considering he’s almost monosyllabic, that means the entire dialogue uttered by Sly would be lost on me.


  1. John Butler says


    Seems I’ve gone over ground you’ve already covered. Although not a lot of overlap.

    I love that you snuck Ben Hur into the list.

    To think for one moment(just after Rocky) Stallone was going to be the next great American auteur. Then he started pumping out sequels at the rate of Police Academy films- and everyone wisely decided otherwise.

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