Great sports movies weave their way past our defences. They persuade people to care desperately about a game they would never choose to watch in reality, with rules they can’t begin to understand: I’m thinking of you, American football, and you, cricket. The genius of these films is that they brainwash us into believing that a baseball match, a ski jump or a bobsleigh heat can be a matter of life and death.
The trick is that the game in question must be a matter of life and death to the characters themselves. It has to be an addiction which brings them at least as much misery as euphoria; and is more important to them than family or functional brain cells. In the movies any sport that regularly injures its participants is going to have a big advantage. It is no coincidence that great sports films about tennis are so thin on the ground, whereas umpteen of them fetishise the gladiatorial danger of boxing. In Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980), Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes) looms over Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) like a vengeful thunder god, and each punch triggers a slow-motion tsunami of blood and sweat. The matter of life and death here clearly isn’t a figure of speech. LaMotta is battling for survival. The last-to-be-picked-at-dodgeball types among us can’t help but be awed. If Scorsese and De Niro had decided to make a biopic of a cricketer instead, let’s say that it wouldn’t have been quite so momentous.
How your boxer and cricketer grew up is relevant, too. There are a few terrific sports movies about characters who were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Asif Kapadia’s BAFTA-winning Ayrton Senna biodoc, Senna (2010), is one. But they are vastly outnumbered by those in which throwing a ball or a punch may be the characters’ only escape from poverty. For the two inner-city Chicago teenagers in Hoop Dreams (1994), basketball seems to be the one viable alternative to jail. It’s a heart-rending, almost unbearably tense documentary, that is almost three hours long. Every squeaking step the young men take on the court is a step towards or away from the abyss.
In Rocky (1976), John Avildsen’s boxing epic, Rocky Balboa’s initial circumstances aren’t much better. Scraping by as a loan shark’s debt collector, he is, like the heroes of most great sports movies, a down-at-heel David taking on a rich and famous Goliath, which is why we care far more about the climactic bout in “Rocky” than we do about the equivalent fights in its numerous sequels. The posters advertising the original film declared, “His whole life was a million-to-one shot”. In the follow-ups, Balboa is no longer the underdog but a boxing sensation, and the popular odds shorten accordingly.
But there is a complicating factor in all of this – a curveball, as baseball fans would have it. Lots of sports movies convince us that their characters need a sporting triumph more than anything else in the world. But the genre’s most stirring films are those in which the characters don’t win in the end. In both “Rocky” and “Raging Bull”, the eponymous pugilist is beaten. In Bad News Bears (1976), a rambunctious baseball comedy, Walter Matthau’s Little League team has to settle for second place. In The Pride of the Yankees (1942), Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper) is stricken by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. As for Clint Eastwood’s crushing Million Dollar Baby (2004)…Well, even after 12 years it feels too soon to reveal the closing twist. Suffice it to say that Maggie (Hilary Swank) doesn’t end up hoisting a trophy above her head.
The most subversive example is Tony Richardson’s class-war classic, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). In the final cross-country race, a borstal boy (Tom Courtenay) is way ahead of his aristocratic rival (James Fox), but he stops before the finish line and waits, hands on hips, while his competitors sprint past. Better to lose, he concludes, than to honour a system which has always mistreated him. It’s a deviously brilliant ending. Good sports movies manipulate us into thinking that nothing is more important than landing a knock-out upper-cut or scoring a tournament-clinching goal. But the best ones remind us that there are other, more profound victories to be had.