One of sports' enduring images is that of pugilist Rocky (the
Italian Stallion) Balboa redeeming a lifetime of residence in
Chumpsville to come all-so close to usurping the world
heavyweight crown from titleholder Apollo Creed. No legitimate
boxing aficionado could forget the kind-hearted palooka, his
aw-shucks manner and near inarticulate speaking voice. His kindly
way with animals (remember his pet turtles, Cuff and Link?), and
awkward manner around women.
Here was a fighter who exhibited an amazing capacity to absorb
punishment, to become revitalised while seemingly having the
bejesus beaten out of him.
What a man. What a jaw.
between sport and entertainment have blurred."
He earned his spoils, his title (in the sequel) - and a
sentimental 1976 Oscar for Best Picture.
Rocky, of course, was a celluloid hero only, a figment of
Sylvester Stallone's imagination come to life on the screen, not
an actual fighter. But in the late 20th century, the boundaries
between sport and entertainment have blurred.
Since the brass at television networks got wise and recognised
there was advertising revenue to be gained from sports, and big
coin at that, athletic competitions have evolved; from
competitions fought between amateurs for the glory of victory, to
another form of programming designed to keep sofa spuds in the
lounge room. Long revered for their sporting prowess, athletes
have taken their place alongside media celebrities at the opening
of Planet Hollywoods, in the public psyche and in gossip columns.
conversations, divides families."
Yet even before footballers starting squiring supermodels,
athletes were the subject of public interest. From the moment
naked Greeks gambolled around stadia to the most recent world
darts championship, there's been an audience for sports.
We barrack for athletes on various fields of play, marvel at
their feats of prowess and courage - and bay for them to commit
acts of skill and violence.
We care a lot about sports. It consumes conversations, divides
Just as it was in Rocky, the arena of sports and its
inhabitants have long been grist for the cinematic mill. In fact,
its wasn't long after the medium of motion pictures developed
that films about sports were cranked out.
"Sentimentality and an
almost predictable overcoming of odds would become a regular
theme in sports films"
The Internet Movie Database lists "Coward!" (aka
"They Called Him Coward"), made in 1915, as the
earliest filmic treatment of sport in film, but you probably
won't find a copy of it on video shelves next to Gladiator or The
Sandlot Kids. Sport in film came of age in 1931 when The Champ ,
a sentimental movie starring Wallace Beery (the subject of much
discussion in Barton Fink) and Jackie Cooper was released. The
story of a too-old fighter and his son captured a brace of Oscars
and inspired a couple of remakes, including the 1979 version
starring Jon Voight and a teary-eyed Ricky Schroder.
Then in 1941, B-Grade regular Ronald Reagan headlined the
corny as all get-out Knute Rockne All-American, playing a
gridiron star with a terminal disease who inspires the team with
his "Win one for the Gipper" speech. It may have been
one of the first instances of an athlete (albeit an imaginary
one, George Gipp) speaking in the first person.
Sentimentality and an almost predictable overcoming of odds
would become a regular theme in sports films over the years, as
battlers in various codes struggled to triumph against adversity,
devious opponents and often - The System.
That hasn't stopped us embracing sports films in the same
manner as the sports themselves.
"Like sport itself, it
seems, our desire for sports films is one that can't be
There have been films about car racing (Days of Thunder),
yachting (Wind), wrestling (Crazy For You), soccer (Fever Pitch),
imaginary sports (Rollerball), bowling (Kingpin) and rowing (The
Boy in Blue), among others.
And the sports films just keep on coming. In recent months
such diverse fare as The Boxer, a Daniel Day Lewis vehicle set
amid "the troubles" of Northern Ireland, The Big
Lebowski, the latest genre tribute from the Coen brothers, this
time the backdrop being the turbulent world of ten pin bowling in
California, and canine kiddie basketball comedy Air Bud have been
released. Like sport itself, it seems, our desire for sports
films is one that can't be quenched.
SEE PART TWO NEXT WEEK