The Olympics and the movies

Forget "Chariots of Fire"; here are three unforgettable documentary looks at the outer limits of human endeavor.



Michael Sragow
September 14, 2000 9:10PM (UTC)

Was the most popular and acclaimed Olympics movie of all time Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia" or Kon Ichikawa's "Tokyo Olympiad"?

The answer, of course, is neither: It was "Chariots of Fire." Hugh Hudson's nostalgia-charged costume drama centered on the Paris Olympics of 1924; it won four Academy Awards, including best picture of 1981, and introduced a majestically catchy musical theme from Vangelis' synthesizer score, an inescapable component of any TV coverage of an inspirational sports saga.

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If only the film were any good! It takes off from the true story of Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a Jewish sprinter from Cambridge, England, and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), a Church of Scotland sprinter who was studying divinity in Glasgow. Abrahams and Liddell had to endure social snobbery and public derision to achieve their athletic goals. But the movie fails to give a satisfying shape to their struggles. Liddell is supposed to have a spiritual potency that extends to all parts of his life: He's a fundamentalist Protestant who won't race on Sundays. Yet when he says that he feels God's spirit when he runs, you wonder how that feeling differs from any other kind of athletic exhilaration.

At least we get to see Liddell in his native milieu. Abrahams' Jewish roots are only spoken about, his family life only hinted at. Since the movie's portrait of both his Jewishness and his opponents' anti-Semitism is so muted, it's possible that his critics are right and he is propelled by ruthless upward mobility. He might well be a British Sammy Glick -- except that we never get to see What Makes Harold Run.

The most likable character in "Chariots of Fire" is an aristocrat, Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), who practices hurdles with glasses of champagne balanced on the ends of the bars. He is the only one with a developed sense of humor. Then again, he can afford to relax: He fits right into the film's idyllic yearning for the historical, pastoral splendor of Great Britain. Cinematographer David Watkin adds to the elegiac effect with landscapes so verdant you feel like running through them barefoot. Combine the greenery with Vangelis' aural blanket and you're in a blissful Anglo-Saxon never-never land. No wonder Prince Charles and Lady Di requested the film for their honeymoon yacht.

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Maybe "Chariots of Fire" was so spectacularly successful at the box office because, thanks in large part to Watkin and Vangelis, it heightened the banal blend of "human interest" and "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" that too often typifies Olympics film and video coverage.

But a handful of moviemakers have seized on Olympic sport itself and used it to celebrate or probe the emotional extremes and physical poetry of people who put themselves on the athletic edge. For a filmmaker, taking off from events as charged yet as familiar as the Olympics has all the danger of grabbing for the big brass ring. The following directors made the grab and came away with the bronze, the silver and the gold.

The gold: Kon Ichikawa's "Tokyo Olympiad"

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"Tokyo Olympiad" is a great movie. It matches the sensuality of Riefenstahl's "Olympia," and then tops it with a rich and fervent humanism. This is one Olympic epic that needs no political disclaimer. Kon Ichikawa, a contemporary and equal of Akira Kurosawa's, had made several earlier classics, like "Fires on the Plain" and "Odd Obsession." But he'd never filmed a documentary before he distilled the 1964 Summer Games into this fluid, funny extravaganza. He brought a fresh eye to the Olympics, and a fresh ear, too, with some of the most rousing combinations of sight and sound ever recorded, such as the whir on the soundtrack setting off the blurred whirl of a bicycle race.

Nonjocks will be relieved by the way Ichikawa explores the tragic and humorous aspects of athletic concentration. This director focuses on the A's and D's of athletic neurosis -- anticipation and anxiety, desire and delay. And seasoned jocks will be delighted by Ichikawa's acknowledgment of the effort that goes into even botched games and lost causes. In a transcendent sequence, Ichikawa's camera calmly tracks with Ethiopian marathon champion Abebe Bikila. One long, unbroken close-up of Bikila churning with astonishing consistency toward the finish line sums up the loneliness of the long-distance runner -- and his heroic tenacity. But Ichikawa caps even this awesome, climactic episode with a prolonged, loving look at the also-rans: at their sweating, gasping torsos and the sores on their feet.

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Above all, what makes the film a masterpiece is the all-encompassing vision of human endeavor and community that Ichikawa brings to his subject. He frames the 1964 Summer Olympics as a haven for international sanity and as the ideal setting for heart-testing human feats of strength, agility and speed. Ichikawa's mingling of the rising sun and the Olympic flame makes perfect sense. At the end, after the races and the hammer throws and the long jumps, the gymnastics, the weight lifting, the sharpshooting and the water races, after the panoply that spills out of the arenas and onto the screen as if from a sportsman's horn of plenty, the athletes meet for a celebratory go-round in the stadium. The closing subtitles read, "Night. And the fire returned to the sun. For humans dream only once in four years. Is it enough for us: this infrequent, created peace?"

It's a measure of the movie's cumulative impact that this final plaintive note doesn't come off as forced or fancy. It emerges from the euphoric peaks of the material. Ichikawa isn't the kind of reductive humanist who imposes a Family of Man sameness on international communities. Right from the opening parade of teams he insists on the differences among races and nations. Every entrance is a doodle on a particular patriotic style, from the sloppy confidence of the Americans in their Stetsons to the suave way the Italians flip their lids in a wave.

Without the heady sculptural overlay of Riefenstahl, this director defines character in action, from American Bob Hayes' powerhouse motion in the 100-meter dash to the "Look, Ma, no hands" happiness with which the USSR's Valery Brumel wins the high jump. Britain's Ann Packer moves from her win in the 800-meter race to the embrace of her fianci in one ebullient rush.

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Ichikawa deploys Kazuo Miyagawa's prismatic, multihued cinematography (he also shot Kurosawa's "Rashomon" and "Yojimbo") and Toshiro Mayazumi's astonishingly variegated music (he also composed scores for John Huston's "The Bible" and "Reflections in a Golden Eye") to create sequences that wash through the viewer in synesthetic waves. You may find yourself reexperiencing entire scenes hours after the movie is over -- say, the marksmanship episode that moves from the intimate fondling of the rifle and the hush of a marksman's concentration to the mechanical bustle of the men handling the targets.

At times, the widescreen Techniscope turns the stadium track into a proscenium stage for the gods. At other times, a horizontal bar bisects the screen so that the audience focuses more closely and intently on an individual gymnast. This movie doesn't just test the limits of the medium -- it keeps redefining them. Ichikawa makes clear that these Summer Games were a once-in-a-lifetime Olympics: For the only time before reunification, East and West Germany fielded a joint team whose anthem was the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth. In its unrestrained artistry as well as its celebration of athletics, "Tokyo Olympiad" is an ode to joy -- and an ode to freedom, too.

The silver: Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia"

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No doubt the Third Reich commissioned Riefenstahl to celebrate the "pure" Aryan beauty Hitler tried to forge into his country's national image. Even Riefenstahl's ardent admirers have to admit that in depicting the Germany of 1936 as a sublime setting for the Olympic Games, she did function, in part, as a pro-Hitler propagandist.

That said, "Olympia" is dedicated not to the Hitler Youth but "to the heroism and glory of the youth of the world." And as events turned out, the film saluted athletic heroes who undercut the Nazis' Aryan mystique. Jesse Owens, the black sprinter and broad jumper from Ohio State, and Kitei Son, the Korean marathon man who competed for Japan, were hemispheres away from any blue-eyed, blond-haired mold.

At the end of the film's first half, "The Festival of Nations," the men's pole-vaulting competition stretches out well into the night and Riefenstahl holds the camera up to the high bar as vaulter after vaulter ratchets over it, as if she's frozen in amazement. In the famous diving scene near the end of the second half, "The Festival of Beauty," the spiraling architecture of Riefenstahl's editing engulfs viewers in a never-ending free-fall.

Yet within and without these pyrotechnical displays, "Olympia" conveys a sense of athletes as individual artists, their accomplishments as personal peaks. Whichever Nazi set Riefenstahl loose in the midst of so much trim and vibrant flesh acted like an inspired producer. Stories about her on-set liaisons were legion -- and "Olympia" was no exception. The effect of Riefenstahl's sensualism is to imbue sports with an adolescent wonder. Watching the competitors through her enraptured eye proves to be a turn-on.

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When one relay runner passes the baton to another, they resemble the front and back halves of a graceful horse. A couple of hurdlers seem to be human synonyms. A sailboat race becomes a sea adventure: The sea hands hang off their boats to help the sails catch the winds, and Riefenstahl freezes them in time, space and spume.

Riefenstahl also lingers on the faces: a big American shot-putter who holds his weight close to his ear, as if it's whispering a secret; Owens, who knows how much pressure weighs down on him in Nazi Germany, but endures it with a delicate smile; and runner Son, who wins the marathon emotionlessly, pushing the sweat from his brow as if his face were a windshield and his hand were an automatic wiper.

Minidramas abound within the major spectacles. All the entrants in the pentathlon shoot their pistols and ride their horses in formal military costume, gamboling over the Teutonic countryside in a sight straight out of "The Prisoner of Zenda." In another quasi-military event -- a grueling three-day horse race -- equestrians guide their steeds over a dizzying series of fences and into a perilous deep pond. The film uses so much slow motion that when Riefenstahl allows a section of the marathon to spin out at natural speed, the runners appear extra quick and superhuman -- until they collapse past the finish line.

The film does have its nutty moments, from its thick Wagnerian prologue, depicting pretty nudes and athletic statuary at the Acropolis, to a male nude scene in the Finn team's sauna, scored to a silly pseudo tango. But Riefenstahl brought a physical awareness to her subject that only Ichikawa surpasses or equals. With one thrilling climax after another, "Olympia" is one of the most sensual consummations in movie history.

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The bronze: "Visions of Eight"

Veteran TV documentarian David Wolper and producer Stan Margulies had the inspired idea to hold their own moviemaking Olympics at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany. They invited eight international filmmakers to record and shape subjects of their own choosing for chapters of an anthology film, which they called "Visions of Eight." Still rentable on a videotape first released in the '80s, it has the enormous charm of a period piece from a more hopeful period. Its freewheeling nature reflects both the optimistic social revolutions of its era and the studied, chic hang-looseness also endemic to the times. Of course, the latter would lead the Munich Games to disaster with minimum-security measures that, as seen in "One Day in September," allowed Palestinian terrorists to invade the Olympic Village and kill 11 members of the Israeli squad.

The film is dedicated to these martyred athletes, but only one filmmaker, John Schlesinger ("Midnight Cowboy," "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"), makes any mention of them: His haunting segment, "The Longest," underlines the tunnel vision of marathon runners.

The film is uneven and full of holes, but these qualities turn out to be inseparable from its vitality. The directorial roster includes several art-house superstars, including Milos Forman ("The Decathlon," by far the hokiest sequence), Ichikawa again ("The Fastest," about the 100-meter race) and Claude Lelouch ("The Losers"). There are also a couple of relative unknowns: Russian Yuri Ozerov, who does a segment on preparation and pre-performance butterflies called "The Beginning," and German Michael Pfleghar, who focuses a loving eye on "The Women."

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But the movie's twin zeniths rise from unexpected quarters. Swedish actress and director Mai Zetterling had been offered the episode on women, but she chose instead to train her lens on weight lifters. She wrote in her 1985 autobiography, "All Those Tomorrows," that she wanted "to do the most 'un-obvious'"; that she felt weight lifting was "strange" and "lost somewhere in the shadows, even at the Olympics"; and that "after some preparatory work," she had put two headings in her notes: 'Isolation' and 'Obsession.'" The result is a galvanizing look at men who seem forever poised between explosion and implosion and appear to be enslaved to inscrutable disciplines, whether practicing their moves without weights or facing their weights as if they were human enemies.

Arthur Penn's essay on pole-vaulting, "The Highest," reminds us that the Penn of "Bonnie and Clyde" was not only a countercultural trailblazer but an action-movie pioneer. He photographs the pole-vaulters so that their approach registers as a streaked, impressionistic painting. They come into focus only as they claw their way through the air. No one has ever conveyed so vibrantly the specific challenges of this event, from the firm planting of the pole and upward climb against gravity to the distinct balletic moves each athlete adopts to clear the bar.

"Arthur's concept for this was not at all easy to execute," his cinematographer, Walter Lassally, recalled in "Itinerant Cameraman," his 1987 memoir, "as it was designed to start with extreme soft-focus images, almost abstract in quality, of the pole-vaulters making their runs. This required the operators to use a telescopic lens, set right out of focus, to follow a figure which was proceeding in a straight line at first, going faster and faster, till finally it changed direction at an unpredictable direction to go almost straight up. To make things doubly difficult, we were also shooting in slow-motion at 96 frames per second, which shows up the slightest imperfection in the operating when you come to see it on the screen."

Bringing off this degree of difficulty with immaculate execution, Penn's is the one vision out of eight to earn a perfect score.


Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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