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The perils of authenticity

Sports contributor Charles Thursby branches out

For some reason which escapes me, yesterday I spent some time contemplating Chariots Of Fire, the 1981 British Oscar-notching [seven nominations and four wins including Best Film and Best Screenplay] movie and specifically what disappointed me about it.

Three decades’ worth of distance may allow hindsight to have full rein as a wonderful thing, but a couple of things still came home to me with blinding clarity.

Firstly, the quest of seeking to display on film, or indeed a theatre stage, a real-life historical outstanding sporting performance is damned difficult. Some might go further and state that any attempt will be doomed to failure.

Let us take (as a hypothetical example) the world’s first sub-four minute mile, whose sixtieth anniversary passed yesterday with various tributes to the now Parkinson’s Disease-stricken Roger Bannister.

The biggest problem facing anyone dreaming of making a film about a sporting moment so iconic is that the audience already knows the outcome. Where’s the drama going to be in that?

Better surely, in that case, to make a documentary using authentic film footage.

On a more mundane level, if you think about it, a similar affliction affects any depiction of sporting excellence in action. If an actor is impersonating a sporting superstar – even a fictional one – in a film, by definition we already know the sporting action is being faked.

The only potential way of avoiding this might be if, in a movie representation of a real-life sporting great, said individual ‘re-performs’ the sporting skills being celebrated. However, even if he or she does that – whether or not they’re ‘standing in for an actor, or alternatively even playing themselves in the movie – we still know those sporting acts are being faked for the purpose.

The bottom line is – and pardon me for stating the obvious – you cannot ‘recreate’ great sporting moments convincingly in the dramatic arts.

Returning to Chariots of Fire for a moment, I worked out yesterday what, in sporting terms, was wrong with it.

It wasn’t that we knew in advance that Harold Abrahams [played by actor Ben Cross] had won the 100 metres gold medal at the 1924 Olympics in Paris.

Instead it was the fact that the more attractive, in terms of audience sympathy, of the two leads – Eric Liddell, played in the movie by actor Ian Charleson – wasn’t convincing enough as an athlete.

LiddellBen Cross was stocky, wiry, and looked almost fit enough during the training and running sequences to be what he was claimed to be, i.e. a world class athlete of the time.

Ian Charleson, however, just didn’t. To put no finer point upon it, he ran like a girl. My recollection is – thirty years after first seeing the film – that he finished each of his races with his head back and his arms flailing forwards like a windmill. No real athlete would do that when straining to prevail in an event – they’d be leaning forwards, trying to be first to breast the tape.

The worst movie I’ve seen in recent times as regards recreating famous real-life sporting events is Invictus (2009), a sporting drama about South Africa’s victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

InvictusFirstly, the re-creation of the rugby action was unconvincing to any proper rugby fan.

Secondly, actor Matt Damon – playing the 6 feet 3 inch, 17 stone Springbok flanker and captain Francois Pienaar – is only 5 feet 10.

The moral of the piece is that film-makers should approach stories about sporting excellence with extreme caution.

I know I’m trading on eggshells here, not least because it wouldn’t surprise me if my movie colleague Neil Rosen was hovering in the wings even now with a list of his top ten sporting films …




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About Charles Thursby

After a lifetime in sports journalism, Charles Thursby continues his immersion in the world of sport by providing the National Rust with dispatches from all points of the compass. More Posts