Granger on Film: With Summer Olympics postponed, check out these movies instead
Although this year’s Summer Olympics has been postponed, there are several movies — available for streaming — that evoke the inspiration of those iconic games. Some highlight specific athletes while others focus on failed attempts of prospective Olympians. In alphabetical order, they are:
“Chariots of Fire” (1981), directed by Hugh Hudson…This poignant British historical drama is about class distinction in the years after World War I, focusing on two runners training for the 1924 Paris Olympics — Scotman Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), the son of Protestant missionaries, and Jewish Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), the son of a Lithuanian immigrant. Their competition is astutely augmented by Vangelis’s evocative, Oscar-winning score.
“Cool Runnings” (1993), directed by Jon Turteltaub…This family-oriented, feel-good comedy is loosely based on the true story of the Jamaican bobsled team, coached by John Candy. In truth, the Jamaicans were welcomed by international bobsledders, who lent them a back-up sled so they could qualify. Real footage from ABC’s coverage of the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics was edited into the movie. That year, it became the highest-grossing live-action film released under the Walt Disney banner.
“Downhill Racer” (1969), directed by Michael Ritchie, focuses on Robert Redford as an arrogant, uncompromising ski champion with Gene Hackman as his coach. His character was supposedly based on two real-life American skiers: Billy Kidd and Spider Sabich. Racing footage was spliced in from real races in Kitzbuhel, Austria, and staged ones in Wengen, Switzerland. The first USA skier to win an Olympic gold downhill medal was Bill Johnson in 1984; he was also the first winner from a non-Alpine country.
“Foxcatcher” (2014), directed by Bennett Miller is the riveting tale of Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo), high-ranking wrestling brothers falling under the influence of John du Pont (Steve Carell), who was determined that they bring glory to the 1988 Olympics. In real life, John DuPont murdered Dave Schultz eight years after Mark Schultz lost in the Seoul Olympics. According to Mark Ruffalo, “John du Pont was repellent, so that’s the way they designed Steve Carell’s look. You never felt comfortable around him.”
“I, Tonya” (2017), directed by Craig Gillespie, examines the ill-fated rivalry between top figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding with Allison Janney winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Tonya’s cruel mother. Although Margot Robbie trained extensively to play Tonya, she could not perform the triple axel, nor could her skating double, so that jump was filmed using visual effects.
“Jim Thorpe — All American” (1951), directed by Michael Curtiz, stars 36 year-old Burt Lancaster as the multifaceted Native American athlete who won medals at the 1912 games. FYI: Thorpe was not a full-blooded Native American since he was part-Irish on his mother’s side. Although Thorpe served as technical advisor, there are many errors, like depicting Glenn S. “Pop” Warner as an avuncular figure when, in truth, Warner betrayed Thorpe when Thorpe’s non-amateur status was discovered. The story combines athletic prowess and racial prejudice.
“Miracle” (2004), directed by Gavin O’Connor, celebrating the U.S. men’s hockey team, coached by Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), that defeated all rivals to win gold at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Members of Team USA were chosen primarily for their hockey skills; acting ability was secondary. At the tryouts, one player greets the goalie, saying, “What’s up, you sieve?” In ice hockey slang, a sieve is a goal tender who allows too many shots to go into the net. The real Herb Brooks died in a car accident during filming, so there’s a dedication before the ending credits.
“Munich” (2005), directed by Stephen Spielberg, is a political thriller, based on Operation Wrath of God, chronicled in George Jonas’ book “Vengeance.” It’s the Israeli government’s secret retaliation against the Palestine Liberation Organization’s slaughter of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics. The word “Sabra” is used several times, indicating a Jew who was actually born and raised in Israel.
“The Other Side of the Mountain” (1975), directed by Larry Peerce, based on the true story of ski racing champion Jill Kinmont (Marilyn Hassett), who suffered a paralyzing accident. As technical advisor, Kinmont spent three days on Mammoth Mountain, where many of the races were filmed; she was transported on a mechanical “snowcat” with her wheelchair strapped to the back. Olivia Newton-John’s song “Richard’s Window” during the concluding credits was Oscar-nominated as Best Original Song.
“Prefontaine” (1997), directed by Steve James, chronicling the life of the outspoken American long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine, played by Jared Leto. It was released one day before Steve Prefontaine’s 46th birthday. This was the first movie to relate his story; the second was “Without Limits” (1998) with Billy Crudup.
“Race” (2016), directed by Stephen Hopkins, who emphasizes that Jesse Owens (Stephan James) was sent to the 1936 Berlin Olympics as an American protest against Hitler’s Aryan supremacy/racist policies. This conventional biopic profiles America’s greatest track-and-field athlete. In 1990, when President George H.W. Bush posthumously presented the Congressional Medal, he acknowledged: “It was an unrivaled athletic triumph. But more than that, it really was a triumph for all humanity.”
Susan Granger has been an on-air television and radio commentator and entertainment critic for more than 25 years. Raised in Hollywood, Granger appeared as a child actress in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, and Lassie. She currently resides in Westport.