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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Thursday June 20, 2019 

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SPORT IN FILM: From Rocky to Air Bud

With a basketball-playing dog in Air Bud and a dope smoking tenpin baller in The Big Lebowski on our screens, sport in films is as popular as ever. In this two part feature, MATT DILLON explores the history of sport in film and next week, discusses the Top 10 sport films of all time (according to him, anyway).

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.

Yo, Adrienne.

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.

"The boundaries 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.

"It consumes 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 families.

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 quenched."

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

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Fever Pitch

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The Boxer

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Air Bud

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The Big Lebowski

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