Sports movies are a poor substitute for the real thing

Champion sports movies like Borg vs McEnroe are never about sport, says film editor Andrew Collins

borg vs mcenroe

This week, there’s a sporting chance you’ll part with money to find out who won the Wimbledon men’s singles final in 1980. I won’t ruin it for you, as the iconic clash and its build-up have been re-created in Borg vs McEnroe (in cinemas Friday 22 September). But those of us ancient enough to have seen the nail-biting match have no need to see those five sets re-enacted like sporting karaoke.

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Almost four decades on, we luxuriate in the age of the spectator where digital technology enhances the viewing pleasure of televised sport at every turn, with slo-mo cutaways of balls being bounced, and every grain of chalk picked out in glorious HD. A tennis film at the cinema? New balls indeed.

Let’s agree that champion sports movies are never about sport, any more than Jaws is about a shark. (It’s about male fear of female empowerment, obviously.) Take Oscar winner Raging Bull. On the finely etched monochrome surface, it’s about a man in the 1940s who is good at boxing and then he isn’t; but underneath it’s a meditation on the self-destructive nature of sexual jealousy.

Chariots of Fire seems to concern two British runners competing at the 1924 Olympics, but it’s actually about the clash of religious faith and sectarian prejudice. More recently, Eddie the Eagle (available on Netflix) reveals more about the underdog spirit than ski-jumping – rather apt given this modest comedy soared to become the highest-grossing British film of 2016.

eddie the eagle
SEAC

Eddie the Eagle

That same spirit has proven to be the energy source on which good and bad sports films run. We’re talking about a genre that thrives on the prowess of unexpected legends and valiant losers. It goes back to the silent era, when, in The Freshman, Harold Lloyd starts out as a university football team’s “tackle dummy” and ends up scoring their winning touchdown.

There are no spoilers in sports films. The final score is preordained. There is no way Jess (Parminder Nagra), banned from playing football by her strict Sikh parents, is going to miss that decisive free kick in Bend It like Beckham. Nor are we in any doubt that Sylvester Stallone will “go the distance” and last 15 rounds with the heavyweight champ in Rocky. Had he been knocked out, we wouldn’t still be turning out for the sequels.

It seems to be the very predictability of conventional, dramatic sports movies that appeals. The bookmakers would kill for that kind of winning certainty.

In 2000, I interviewed Robert Redford about The Legend of Bagger Vance, the period golf drama he was proud to have produced and directed. Poring through the American press clippings beforehand, I noticed a common refrain: that it wasn’t about golf. In the source novel, a magical caddy (played in the film by Will Smith) rehabilitates a shell-shocked golfer (Matt Damon), and a round of 18 holes becomes a metaphor for life and recovery. So I began my interview with the words, “Clearly this is not a movie about golf…” Redford’s face lit up: “I’m so pleased you got that!” Advantage, me!

the legend of bagger vance

The Legend of Bagger Vance

In many ways, being a sports fan is a disadvantage when watching a sports drama, as it’s always a poor substitute for the real thing. Borg vs McEnroe will be followed in November by Battle of the Sexes, which plays the 1973 exhibition match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) for comedy. It’s a story that’s already been told in the 2001 TV movie When Billie Beat Bobby with Holly Hunter and Ron Silver, and in an absorbing 2013 documentary. The latter wins out because when it comes to sport, the truth always beats fiction.

I wouldn’t watch motor racing if you paid me, yet I was captivated by the Bafta-winning Senna, which plots the doomed career of F1 driver Ayrton Senna using archive footage and audio interviews. I’ll take When We Were Kings, the Oscar-winning factual account of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle”, over the theatrics of standard-issue biopic Ali, where Will Smith fought in vain to fill the gloves. It was the same for Chris Hemsworth as James Hunt in Rush, Ben Foster as disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong in The Program, and Stephan James as Jesse Owens in last year’s Race.

For as long as there are stories, there will be sports movies. But is there anything more depressing than staged football? In the much derided wartime kick-about Escape to Victory, professionals Bobby Moore, Pelé, Mike Summerbee and half the Ipswich Town team play the PoWs coached by Michael Caine to carry out a great escape. It’s a disaster of two halves: the players can’t act and the actors can’t play (despite Sylvester Stallone being coached in goal by England hero Gordon Banks).

It’s time to blow the whistle. With a few exceptions, if you like sport, turn to Sky Sport, not Sky Cinema.

By Andrew Collins

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Borg vs McEnroe is in cinemas from Friday 22nd September