Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Film Olympics : Archery to Judo

The Olympics, the thirtieth modern Games, start in less than a fortnight. The Olympics themselves have long been filmed as well as cinematically reenacted. What of those films in which Olympic feats and endeavours are achieved? Who are those characters who have tried out these sports, perhaps out of competition and outside of any rules, and succeeded to extraordinary effect?

I am especially interested in characters performing / practising the sport's activity without participating in the actual sport itself.

In 21st Century cinema the ancient art of Archery may have been overwhelmed by louder and more devastating machinery, abandoning Artemis/Diana, William Tell and Robin Hood to another, quainter time.

And yet, out of the woods of old myth came first the bow-wielding elf Legolas in Peter Jackson's adaptations of the Lord of the Rings books, then the equally adept Paris in Troy (both played by Orlando Bloom).

In 2012, archery is relevant in new versions of old worlds or a future made old by apocalypse, as in The Hunger Games. Archery is cool in its own context, one could say, in the hands of Princess Merida, for example, in Brave's Scottish highlands, or in fables such as Snow White and the Huntsman. The 10th Century, that's where it belongs. However, Marvel comic book character Hawkeye in The Avengers, a film very much set now, amongst the most explosive of powers and weaponry, has demonstrated that the archer is verily back in vogue.

Much like the lightsaber was more civilised than the blaster to Obi-Wan Kenobi, so the bow and arrow maintains an aura of honour. It is a tool of exquisite precision which seems to concentrate all the character's personality and energy into its form.

The disciplines of Athletics are the foundation of any action film: Captain John Carter doing the high (high) jump; Ethan Hunt long jumping over a hole in a bridge in Mission Impossible 3; pole vaulting over prison walls in Naked Gun 33 1/3 or across deadly ground in Tremors; Mayans hurling javelins/spears at escapees in Apocalypto; the Man of Steel hammer-throwing a Kryptonian into the sky by his feet in Superman II; James Bond hurtling down the streets of London in Skyfall. Put in the effort, push yourself, run against fear and for desire, race against time and against fate.

I cannot say that Badminton, or anything like it, makes an appearance in too many films. King, an Indonesian film from 2009 about a boy who fulfills his dreams through badminton, is supposedly the only fiction film that revolves around the sport. Certainly there have been brief scenes of people (children especially) playing badminton or of improvised bats and shuttlecocks but none stick in the mind. 

Basketball is ubiquitous in depictions of American life. This year high school student Peter Parker showed his (arachnid) powers/prowess on the court in The Amazing Spider-Man. The court is often the battleground for self-esteem and the weighing of social worth, issues of power flux that film is and always will be concerned with. The documentary Hoop Dreams gave us a glimpse of how basketball can be important in the same way in real life.

Have dreams been so finely balanced as in the moment when the clock has stopped and the ball is flying in slow motion towards the net?

If basketball has always been a part of Americana (cinematica), BMX bikes, or Mountain Biking, became something of a phenomenon in the 1980s. Every kid wanted one and every cool kid on the silver screen had one: The Goonies, E.T... There was even, in 1983, an Australian film about BMX Bandits. Super 8, an homage to the films of the Eighties, made sure to put its kids on bikes, cruising through small town suburban streets as they always did, criss-crossing from schools, to diners, to secret hideouts.

More recently mountain bikes are taken up the slopes where riders get lost or are slain by monsters.

To these characters, pushing for the first time at adulthood, the bikes represent freedom and escape. The same goes for Cycling in general, as seen in the Dardenne brothers' Le Gamin Au Velo, about a kid who is constantly on the move, running from disappointment towards a love and security always just over the horizon. The motorcycle offers a more dynamic, steroidal version of this feeling of unanchored power (The Wild Ones...).

As cycling often goes in tandem with the countryside, so Canoeing is the favoured mode of transport for characters in the back of beyond, slipping through the veins of the exotic, banked by forests and the sounds and calls therein; Deliverance, Pocahontas, The New World. Canoeing can be an adventure happening to you. It can also be an adventure that you have claimed, riding the rapids for recreation. You're a daredevil one inch away from having your pride bruised and your life taken. One minute you are laughing at nature's boasts, the next it is swallowing you whole.

It is very much the same story when it comes to Diving. You can dive in a pool decorated with babes just for the hell of it. You can dive to show off, or make a stand, like in Studio Ghibli's From Up on Poppy Hill. It's a show of courage. It's a last resort in Apocalypto, The Fugitive or Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and a key ingredient in many a chase. A choice : face the enemy or risk it all.

The Exhilaration of Panic and Love :  
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and From Up On Poppy Hill

A woman or a man standing on the edge of a bridge ready to jump is the start of many films - Dario Argento's Trauma and Patrice Leconte's Girl on the Bridge are just two. It is a turning point before we've even started our journey.

They want to end it all, like David in A.I., but in that act discover there is more to live for. A dive into the cool, deep waters when all seems lost leads to rebirth in The Bourne Ultimatum and Femme Fatale too.

Like archery, Equestrianism and Fencing take place in, or are evocative of, a time before. They are practices wrapped up in concepts of uncomplicated and uncynical heroism (be it generals or renegades). As you are perched above, the horse's back becomes a muscular marble or steaming mahogany throne.

The amount of men and women who have ridden into battle, high-tailed it into the forest leaping over fallen trees, or galloped into the sunset cannot be counted. Again, cinematically, horse-riding is freedom. Romantic interest is piqued by a feisty lady at one with the beast, hair blowing in the wind, or by a man who has tamed and harnessed nature. Both sights provoke slack-jawed awe.

The riderless horse, a picture of abandonment and loneliness as well as of liberty and play, is an intensely dramatic image.

There is something oddball and old-style queer about fencing, or sword fighting undertaken in the fencing style. It is for those who like matters decided cleanly and in a dignified manner, to touch the point upon your adversary's chest as if it were an accusing finger; The Princess Bride, Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood 

In films It is likely the least dangerous of confrontations with a blade. In Die Another Day, the real danger comes when the foil, epee or sabre are swapped for a meaty sword that promises a pound of excised flesh.

Football is a fertile ground for storytelling, given its vast culture of professional, semi-professional, Sunday league and recreational play, of passion, of community and place, of the richest and the poorest, the West and the Orient united. It is like Basketball to Americans, only more so.

It lends itself to small tales of girl soccer teams, to tales of pluck (Mike Bassett, England Manager), of inspiration (Bend it Like Beckham) of those practically unhinged by its demands on the soul (The Damned United, The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty, Fever Pitch, sundry depictions of hooliganism).

[Image from]

If you discount the documentary which followed a master through the course of the game (Zidane : A 21st Century Portrait), the professional game, it is fair to say, has never been satisfactorily depicted (see Goal!). It is impossible to replicate something that, to billions, is more dramatic than fiction could ever be. So something magical or historically momentous must be added - a fight for democracy and good itself against the Nazis in Escape to Victory or a literally super-powered battle in Shaolin Soccer.

But what of football in films that isn't football itself? What about Crank 2's hero Chelios booting a severed head into a swimming pool. Good technique.

Films which feature Gymnastics, prominently or at least in a meaningful way, are thin on the ground. In 1984 a TV movie was made about Romanian gymnastics legend Nadia Comaneci (entitled Nadia). In 2006 came Stick It! about a teenage gymnast who learns to positively channel her rebellious nature and White Palms (from the chalk gymnasts put on their hands for grip), a Hungarian film with a similar story arc, this time a troubled young man on the way to maturity.

The most haunting and beautiful moment of gymnastics outside the hall may very well appear at the beginning of Alexander Sokurov's biopic of Adolf Hitler, Moloch. In the Bavarian Alps, outside a vast holiday house / military complex shrouded in dense moonlit fog, a nude Eva Braun exercises on the precipice.

Chak de India (2007), about a women's team, seems to be the only major film about Hockey. Field hockey is a strictly female pursuit in the cinema, and certainly no-holds barred (St.Trinian's for both). Knee-shattering, ankle-scraping brutality seems to be hockey's calling card in films, and that's ignoring the damage an ice hockey stick can wreak in films like City of Violence and Running Scared. 

Away from the field this hard wood can be deadly (a shepherd's crook with which to batter lost sheep), a lifesaver for Lisa (Rachel McAdams) in Red Eye.

Sanshiro Sugata marked the directorial debut of Akira Kurosawa in 1943. As is often the case in fiction, the acquiring of skills and discipline in sport, here Judo, are a metaphor and catalyst for the taking on of the responsibilities and knowledge of adulthood. Therefore the development of a person is a matter of self-moulding, of achieving proficiencies and expertises.

Those proficiencies serve James Cagney (an actor famous for his portrayals of pugnacity and a black belt in Judo) well in a fight in Blood on the Sun (1945).

Sanshiro Sugata (Top), Blood on the Sun (Above)


  1. An excellent article. This is completely off topic, but I'm wondering, from what film is your site header photo from?

  2. Thank you very much. The image is taken from Love in the Afternoon by Eric Rohmer (it is sometimes called Chloe in the Afternoon).

  3. Stephen, you never seem to run out of creative ideas, and yet again here you have moved from an engaging Olympics lead-in to a survey of films that examine many of the individual sports. I have seen many of the films you feature here, including the topical THE HUNGER GAMES represented here of course by archery. This essay has a real hook! Nice work!

  4. Cheers Sam! I'm glad if I can keep things interesting (for myself if for no-one else!).