There are lots and lots (and lots!) of movies about sports, and many of them reside in my DVD collection. But every once in a while, a movie comes along that glorifies its sport in such an essential, thrilling way, it almost becomes an icon of that game.
These are the films that do that for me, in alphabetical order by sport.
BASEBALL: The Natural, 1984
I had many other choices in this category—1989’s Field of Dreams is the obvious alternate here. But the sheer heroics of The Natural‘s protagonist, Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford in one of his best roles), and the sharp delineation of good and bad, right and wrong, and real players versus wannabes, lift this film to my list of icons. If you don’t thrill to the crash of Hobb’s home-run ball into the backboard, if the lightning-flash doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, then probably nothing from a real diamond will, either.
BOXING: Rocky, 1976
Okay, Rocky is iconic already, for so many things. Who can hear that theme music and not see Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa? But what makes this movie my icon for boxing is the way the very brutality of the sport becomes part of the growth process for Rocky. It isn’t Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) whom Rocky must defeat, but himself. See if the hair doesn’t rise on your neck when Rocky says, “I was thinkin’, it really don’t matter if I lose this fight. It really don’t matter if this guy opens my head, either. ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance.”
CYCLE RACING: American Flyers, 1985
In the ’80s, the bicycle race for American cyclists was not the Tour de France, but the Coors Classic, in Colorado, thinly-disguised in this movie as the "Hell of the West" stage race. My first glimpse of the tactics and strategy involved in stage racing came from this movie, which captures the competition quite well. The story is almost a sideline, but Kevin Costner’s Marcus talks his brother David (played by David Marshall Grant) into coming along for the Hell of the West. When Marcus collapses from a growing brain tumor, it’s left to David to hold up their side against “Cannibal” Muzzin (Luca Bercovici). And while it’s not a hair-raising scene, the training session with “Eddie” is my favorite. (Eddie is a large dog who provides motivation for David to ride faster.) Cycle-champ Eddy Merckx appears as himself—now that’s hair-raising!
GOLF: Pat and Mike, 1952
This classic film starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy made waves in the early ’50s for its portrayal of a woman athlete whose competitive edge was ruined whenever her patronizing fiancé showed up. It makes my shelf as the essential golf-flick (just barely passing 2000’s The Legend of Bagger Vance for the same reason, by the way) because the golf-play is realistic. Hepburn’s character makes a coolly rational decision to play golf because she accepts her trainer (Tracy)’s assessment that more money is to be made there. Like Bagger Vance, though, this movie really is about the soul-searching and continuous re-commitment that is required for a champion in any game.
HOCKEY: Mystery, Alaska, 1999
This movie was billed as a black comedy, but for glorification of a sport, it tops my list. For the residents of Mystery, Alaska, ice hockey isn’t so much a game as a way of life. When a pro team (The New York Rangers) comes to play, the entire town gets involved. Russell Crowe’s Sheriff John Biebe sometimes takes a backseat to the antics of “Skank” Marden (Ron Eldard): “I play hockey and I fornicate, ’cause those are the two most fun things to do in cold weather.” But the ice hockey—the game itself—is the central character in this movie, and it’s real enough that the Rangers win. The most thrilling moments come in the face-offs between Mystery players and Rangers.
FOOTBALL: The Replacements, 2000
There are so many iconic football movies. You could argue with me that either version of The Longest Yard, or perhaps 2000’s Remember the Titans, would be a better choice for football. These reside on my football shelf, along with The Blind Side, We Are Marshall, When the Game Stands Tall and more recently, Draft Day. Yet I place this Keanu Reaves outing on my icons shelf for a simple reason: this movie, more than any other, glorifies the game as a game. I love Shane Falco (Keanu Reaves)’s synopsis of why football is worth playing: “Pain heals. Chicks dig scars. Glory… lasts forever.” There’s also the essential concept for any team sport, that the team must become more to the player than himself. The hair-lifting scene comes as quarterback Falco jerks the ball away from field-goal kicker Nigel Gruff (Rhys Ifans) to save him from the consequences of a team-versus-me choice.
LUGE: Cool Runnings, 1993
When I learned that a Jamaican bobsled team would compete in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, I thought it was a joke. This movie is a comedy based on the team’s first entry into the Olympics, but it earns a place on my shelf of icons by showing the real heart and effort that made this team a winner. Okay, they came in last—but they didn’t quit. This Disney film takes that almost-universal initial reaction, and uses it as fuel to show why the Jamaican bobsled team could come back and finish 14th in 1994 in Lillehammer—ahead of both sleds from the United States.
RUNNING: Chariots of Fire, 1981
I nearly picked 1988’s On the Edge (the Bruce Dern film) for this shelf, for its thrilling depiction of a marathon event, but Chariots edged past it. Ian Charleson as the Scottish Christian runner, and Ben Cross as the Jewish Cambridge student, both of them competing in the 1924 Olympics, give us a real feeling for each runner’s motivation. Charleson makes no secret of his faith, while Cross is never allowed to forget his. Interestingly, it is Charleson’s faith that brings him into conflict with his Christian country’s Olympic team.
SOCCER: Victory (AKA Victoire, Escape to Victory), 1981
The plot is simple: a WWII soccer-player POW (Michael Caine) conceives a plan to escape with his entire team during a match between German players and the POWs. The game turns into a metaphor for the war itself, with real soccer legends (Pelé, Bobby Moore, Osvaldo Ardiles, Werner Roth) playing Allies and German kickers. Until the break in the game, this is a typical escape-from-German-stalag film, with soccer thrown in. What sets this story firmly on my shelf of icons is the refusal of the players to escape by tunnel from their Paris locker-room, when “we could win this game!” One hair-lifting moment here comes with the in-your-face singing of the banned national anthem, La Marseillaise, by the French crowd, another from the astounding over-top kick by Pelé. Even a re-written ending that lets Sylvester Stallone make the winning play can’t detract from the solid soccer action provided by legends of the game.
And if I have to chose one single film that represents the glory of sport for me, it is, always and forever, Victory.