Title: Sports in film, television, and history: introduction
Author(s): Ron Briley
Source: Film & History. 35.2 (July 2005): p17. From Literature Resource Center.
Document Type: Article
Copyright : COPYRIGHT 2005 Center for the Study of Film and History
This second and final issue of Film & History dealing with sport and film demonstrates the outstanding quality of scholarship in the field. Our first issue focused primarily upon American sport, while the essays contained in this volume place sport within a more international and often critical context. Traditionalists often perceive the athletic playing field as a meritocracy in which issues of race, gender, and class play no role. Films such as Miracle (2004), focusing upon the upset victory of the American hockey team over the Soviets in the 1980 Olympic Games, and Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man (2005), chronicling the rags to riches story of heavyweight fighter James Braddock during the 1930s, perpetuate the idea that athletics provide a model for social mobility in which hard work will prevail in the best tradition of Benjamin Franklin and Horatio Alger.
The authors in this volume, however, question this assumption; arguing that nationalism, race, class, and gender are major components of sport and its reflection through cinema. Athletes are often burned out at a young age and fail to acquire the educational skills necessary to succeed in life. Sport as an avenue for social mobility often proves illusive. And notions of fair play in the increasingly big money world of sport are given pause by the emergence of performance-enhancing drugs. Yet, we are still drawn to the struggle of sport in which underdogs do achieve the impossible victory and give us all encouragement that equality and justice may reign on and off the fields of play.
The Olympic Games provide a venue for political statement as well as athletic excellence. The 1936 Berlin Games were employed by Nazi Germany to assert Aryan superiority, but this notion was shattered by the efforts of Jesse Owens. The Mexico City Olympics of 1968 witnessed the brutal suppression of student dissent by the Mexican government, as well as the symbolic Black power protest of sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos. While political boycotts dealing with the Cold War and racial apartheid were significant factors in the post World War II Olympics, perhaps the most infamous example of politics intruding into the games is the 1972 terrorist attack which resulted in the slaying of Israeli athletes.
David Diffrient offers an insightful essay on the official documentary of the 1972 games Visions of Eight (1973), which consciously decided not to focus upon the violence of the winter games in Munich. Visions of Eight, produced by David L. Wolper and Stan Margulies, consists of eight different films directed by such outstanding international filmmakers as Arthur Penn, Milos Foreman, and John Schlesinger. Diffrient argues that these films, by concentrating upon the tension between cooperation and competition, best exemplify the Olympic spirit and experience.
Issues of class and sport are developed by Glen Jones and John Hughson, who discuss sport in British narrative films. Jones provides an excellent overview of how sport is an important part of British cinema; although often overshadowed by film criticism examining British crime and comedy genres. The second part of Jones’s essay discusses The Girl with Brains in Her Feet (1997) as an example of how the issues of race and class may intersect in British society, athletics, and cinema. Hughson addresses issues of social class in his examination of director Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). Hughson places this well-known sporting film within the context of the “angry young man” genre developed by the work of John Osborne.
Issues of class, however, are hardly limited to British cinema. Class and its intersection with race is a subject of numerous acclaimed American films dealing with boxing. The boxing genre in the United States is noted for such fine films as Golden Boy (1939), Body and Soul (1947), Champion (1949), Raging Bull (1980), and Hurricane (2001), but perhaps the most beloved Hollywood fight film is Rocky (1976). Rocky and its sequels are extolled by many filmgoers and critics as the embodiment of the American dream of success through hard work and determination. Such a simplistic reading of the film is challenged by the essays of Victoria Elmwood and Clay Motley.
In her reading of Rocky, Elmwood interprets the film as reflecting male insecurity during the troubled economic and political times of the 1970s. Reacting to the growth of feminism and the blurring of traditional gender boundaries, Elmwood argues that Rocky enlists the support of Black men into the consensus in order to roll back the gains of feminism. Motley also perceives the film as reflecting male insecurities during the 1970s; maintaining that the 1970s were comparable to the crisis of American manhood during the 1890s. Traditional males, such as Theodore Roosevelt, were threatened by modernism and questioned their masculinity, seeking “manly” experience in conflict such as the Spanish-American War of 1898. Motley asserts that a similar identity crisis was present during the 1970s as the economy tumbled and Americans suffered from the aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal.
The problem with sport as a means of social mobility for minorities in American society is examined in Katherine Cipriano’s essay dealing with the documentary Hoop Dreams (1994). The film focuses upon the span of five years in the lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two young African-American men from the projects in Chicago. Gates and Agee are convinced that basketball will allow them to attain the American dream, but the ramifications of this illusion are well investigated in the film and Cipriano’s essay.
Sometimes athletes appear to be a class unto themselves, achieving seemingly superhuman accomplishments, creating superstars on track, court, or golf course. Michael Schoenecke explores the relationship between celebrated athletes and the movies, focusing on one sportsman who preferred not to “go Hollywood.” Golfer Bobby Jones chose to participate in instructional films rather than fictional features. But, as Schoenecke reveals, humorous scenes were inserted to meet audience narrative expectations, reflecting cultural assumptions about both sports figures and sport films.
Because it reflects so well the issues of contemporary society, sport films deserve a great place in the curriculum. Latham Hunter teaches cultural studies at Ontario Community College. Many of her predominantly male students are only taking a cultural studies course because it is a requirement; however, Hunter discovered that teaching an accessible film such as The Natural (1984) allowed her to critically engage students in a dialogue regarding ideas of gender, heroism, and nation. Her experience suggests the possibilities of the sport film as a pedagogical tool.
In conclusion, these essays demonstrate the broad range of scholarship addressing issues of race, gender, and class called to our attention by the sport film genre. It has been a pleasure to work with these authors, but I regret that issues of time and space made it impossible to include all of the fine essays on sport and film which we received. It is my hope that a scholarly volume on sport and film will emerge from these two issues of Film & History. I would like to thank Peter Rollins for the opportunity to edit these volumes on sport and film. It is his vision which maintains the state of excellence associated with Film & History. And last, but by no means least, these editions on sport and film would not have made it to publication without the invaluable editorial assistance of Deb Carmichael. Thank you Deb!
Ron Briley is assistant headmaster and a history teacher at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he has taught for the last 27 years. Ron is also adjunct professor of history at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus. His work on sport and film has appeared in such journals as The History Teacher, Film & History, Social Education, Journal of Sport History, Literature/Film Quarterly, OAH Magazine of History, AHA Perspectives, Nine, Popular Culture Review, and numerous anthologies. Ron is also the author of Class at Bat, Gender on Deck, and Race in the Hole: A Line Up of Essays on Twentieth- Century Culture and America’s Game (McFarland, 2003).
Sandia Preparatory School
Source Citation(MLA 7th Edition)
Briley, Ron. “Sports in film, television, and history: introduction.” Film & History 35.2 (2005): 17. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 Oct. 2013.