The Winter Olympics in Vancouver are underway, so it’s as good a time as any to talk about the Olympics in film. I have a quick unofficial Top 6 list for you of the best Olympics movies, and then a more extended look at the first ever film coverage of the Olympic games.
Just missing this list:
* Chariots of Fire (1981), which would probably sneak in if I saw it again, but I’m not sure I remember it well enough to evaluate it fairly.
* For Your Eyes Only (1981), one of the best James Bond movies, but whose pertinence to the Olympics is too tangential for it to qualify.
My Top 6 Olympics movies:
6. Cool Runnings (1993)
The remarkable true story of an Olympic Jamaican bobsled team is adapted to the big screen as a family comedy starring John Candy as the coach. Candy plays the role straight, leaving most of the comedy to the team members, who are funny mostly because they’re also playing their roles straight. It’s a good movie for when you could use some cheering up.
5. The Cutting Edge (1992)
It’s scarcely more than a romantic comedy crossed with a sports film, but darned if this flick doesn’t have charm and charisma. It’s about a tempermental figure skater and a washed-up hockey player who team up to compete in the Olympics as a figure skating pair. Of course they hate each other at first and come around in the end. Think “Step Up” on ice, only good. Toe pick!
4. Charlie Chan At the Olympics (1937)
One of the best of the 50 (!) Charlie Chan films, this one starring Warner Oland, the best of the Charlie Chan whodunnits. The series got less and less creative and more and more wooden as it went on, particularly after the shift from the Fox studio, where the films got reasonable budgets, to skid-row Monogram Pictures, where they didn’t. But this one occurs right at the series’ peak.
It’s also interesting from a historical perspective, as the Olympics in question were the notorious 1936 Berlin games. When this was made in 1937, Hollywood was skittish about confronting Naziism (Hollywood’s first anti-Nazi movie, 1939’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy, provoked considerable controversy), and so the film is conspicuously careful to sidestep political content. Swastikas, for example, were carefully blotted out, frame by frame, from stock footage of the Hindenburg, upon which some of the action takes place.
3. Munich (2005)
One of Steven Spielberg’s darkest movies is this political thriller about the aftermath of the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich. An expendable team is secretly assembled to track down the perpetrators and assassinate them, but what starts as an impersonal mission evolves into just the opposite. The operatives, particularly the main character played by Eric Bana, find themselves tortured by moral questions they can’t ignore. The line between right and wrong, justice and revenge, becomes blurry, and then even that dividing line becomes a moot point as it becomes clear that carrying out the team’s mission will have devastating consequences regardless of its moral correctness.
2. Miracle (2004)
Faithful as it is to the sports movie formula, Miracle is a great movie because of how it lets its characters live beyond the boundaries of all the requisite stock character types. Kurt Russell doesn’t play the generic down-and-out coach with one last big shot, he plays this down-and-out coach with one last big shot, if you get the distinction. Formulas became formulas in the first place because when done right, they work well. This movie works well. That it is, like many of the films in this list, based on a true story adds to its effectiveness.
1. Olympia (1938)
It’s hard to imagine that documentary coverage of the Olympic games could be such an artistic masterpiece of imagery, Leni Reifenstahl’s documentary coverage of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games is just that. Reifenstahl, one of the most controversial of all filmmakers, made the great but evil propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935), commissioned by Hitler himself. It, along with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), forces film scholars to wrestle with difficult questions of form vs. content. The cinematic artistry of these films cannot be ignored, yet nor can their agendas of intolerance and hate.
Her film Olympia, however, is thankfully free of political editorial. It is true that it showcases the remarkable accomplishment of the German athletes in the games, but so would any accurate documentary of these particular games. Furthermore, it does make a point of Jesse Owens’ victories in track and field, along with other non-Aryan wins. Owens, an African-American, won four gold medals in these games, while Hitler himself is seen in close-up looking on from the stands. The juxtaposition of these shots is arguably a tacit dissent of Nazi beliefs of racial superiority.
The bulk of the film is a seemingly utilitarian record of the games, similar to the coverage we’d see on television today, albeit without the constant recaps and backstories. And as sport coverage, it is roughly as entertaining as any contemporary Olympic coverage. But the film is so much more than that with its editing and staging, and also with the book-end montages that open and close both acts of the two-part film.
The opening 20 or so minutes, for example, contain no games coverage at all but rather a series of montages that set the stage. These opening shots are among the most beautiful I’ve seen in film. Collectively, they are a tribute to beauty — of nature, of ancient architecture, and finally of the human body in motion. In this latter part of the montage are slow motion shots of nude bodies running, jumping, and dancing. There is a historic precedent: it is said that in the original Olympic games, athletes competed in the nude, but I think the point is not so much history as physiology. The human body is beautiful — and powerful.
The sequence is also a testament to the power of black and white cinematography. Would it have worked in color? I’m confident it would not. Color would soften the harsh lighting and cold sensuality of the imagery. It would ground in the images in reality instead of establishing them as unencumbered by it.
With the record of the games following these montages, the stage is set. We find ourselves thinking not so much about what happens as how. Okay, so a guy throws a discus. But look how he moves when he does it.
The film was edited differently for release in different countries. An early sequence shows a montage of announcers from different countries reporting on the games in their respective languages, but afterwards we hear only, for example, the English reporter for the English-language version. The English versions also minimize the Nazi iconography, which undoubtedly required some careful editing, as swastikas were emblazoned all over the place at the games and would have been picked up by the cameras unintentionally.
Although the bulk of the film is “straight” documentary footage, concessions of the facts are made to artistry here and there, nowhere more so than the high diving coverage at the end. Reifenstahl shoots the dives from all different angles, one from one angle, then another from another. Sometimes we view from underneath, above, or sideways. We lose track of where “up” and “down” are and focus instead of bodies soaring through space in slow motion. Many of the athletes are shot in silhouette, and finally she dispenses with the splashes entirely. Again, some of the most gorgeous imagery I’ve ever seen in film.
Though it is much more, Reifenstahl’s Olympia would be significant simply as the first film footage of the Olympic games. We take for granted now that we can flip on the TV at any time during the games and see what’s going on. But for the first 60 years in the history of the modern Olympics, if you wanted to see the games, you had to go. It wasn’t until the 1956 winter games that they were televised internationally. Before then, maybe you’d get a few tiny clips in newsreel footage, but that was it. But Olympia gives us not just a good look at the 1936 games but a powerful work of artistic imagery as well.