Summer Movies: Olympic Medal-Winning Favorites
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Is a film in development where the aged Russian gymnast is allowed to give Michael Phelps the medal that broke her record? How about "Bad News Badminton" or "Dream Team V"? Well, there's no way to know whether we're going to see the butterfly, shuttlecocks or slam dunks in 3D anytime soon, but in the grip of Olympic fever, we kick off our annual summer film festival with a celebration of Hollywood's past focus on the drama of the games. Our favorite film buff Murray Horwitz joins us in just a moment.
If you're new to this feature, we want you to nominate your favorite Olympic movie. Summer or winter is fine. Feature or documentary is OK, too. But there's one film that we've disqualified for excessive popularity.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CHARIOTS OF FIRE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What's the deal with this guy Liddell? Is he a problem?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No problem. He's a flyer. He's had two races today already. He'll die. Just swing along, you guys, and wait. After 300 meters, rigor mortis sets in. You'll pull him in on a rope.
CONAN: So if you want to nominate any Olympics movie other than "Chariots of Fire," give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Murray Horwitz joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome back, Murray.
MURRAY HORWITZ, BYLINE: Well, it's good to be back, Neal, as always. Thanks.
CONAN: And I have to begin by noting this is a fairly small genre.
HORWITZ: Listen, this is probably fewer movies than we've ever come up with in any topic. But there's a lot to talk about. I mean, it's really interesting. I'm - and I can brag about it, because this was not my idea.
HORWITZ: This is the crack TALK OF THE NATION's staff folks that came up with it. But, you know, you're going to wipe the floor with me on this, and so are our listeners. And please, out there, call us with your nominations, because I have not seen a great many of these movies, and there are people who know them a lot better than I do.
CONAN: And is there some characteristic that unifies this theme other than Olympic Games?
HORWITZ: Well, yeah - that is to say, the absence of a lot of films. I mean, if you think about it, the Olympics - there should be dozens, hundreds of Olympic films, because it affects virtually every country on the face of the earth.
CONAN: And there's some great stories. We've seen them all, up close and personal.
HORWITZ: Whether you wanted to or not. And as a result, I'm not sure, but one reason may have to do with the international aspect of the Olympics and the fact that, you know, sometimes we think of sports movies as coming to a climax of the big game, with the good guys versus the bad guys. But with this whole Olympic ideal of a world community of sport, there are theoretically no bad guys in the Olympics. After all, the motto is faster, higher, not - faster, higher, stronger, not beat the crap out of the other guy.
CONAN: Yeah, well, that's the other translation.
HORWITZ: There may be another, more practical reason, I speculate, and it is only speculation. The International Olympic Committee and the National Olympic Committees guard the Olympic brand very jealously, and I wonder if they don't make it difficult for filmmakers to use the name and the logo and the whole identity of the games.
CONAN: Well, it may depend on how far you go back. For example, we have this nominee from Paul in San Jose: "Jim Thorpe - All-American," one of my all-time favorites. Of course, Burt Lancaster stars as the great athlete.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "JIM THORPE - ALL-AMERICAN")
BURT LANCASTER: (as Jim Thorpe) That was a big help. Let me take the ball again. I'll get it off this time.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Forty-eight, 26, 32, 97, 41.
CONAN: And playing football there in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, they realized this could be a decathlete.
HORWITZ: Right, and a pentathlete before that. There was a - before there was the modern pentathlon, there was the old pentathlon.
CONAN: Ancient pentathlon.
HORWITZ: The un-modern - the tired pentathlon. And Jim Thorpe, in fact, won the gold medal in both of those events at the 1912 Olympics. And his story really revolves almost entirely around the Olympics. There's great speculation and a lot of evidence to support it that he was stripped of his medals mostly because of his Native American heritage and...
CONAN: He went on to play professionally with the New York Giants after that, but it turned out he had taken money in a semi-pro league.
HORWITZ: Semi-pro baseball league, a pittance. And he said, all I was ever guilty of - he said rather, you know, sheepishly - was being a dumb Indian boy, he said. But it's important to remember that partly because of this film, I guess, in 1983, 30 years after this film, his gold medals were reinstated after his death.
CONAN: Let's get Mike on the line. Mike's on the line with us from Fort Walton Beach in Florida.
MIKE: Yes, sir. How are you doing today?
CONAN: Very well. Thank you.
MIKE: Excellent. I wanted to nominate - I know it sounds silly, but I got a great reason behind it - "Cool Runnings," Jamaican bobsled team.
CONAN: And why do you nominate the wonderful comedy "Cool Runnings"?
MIKE: Because it really kind of captures, albeit in a comedic passion, the - just the intensity of a small country getting a chance to be on the world stage. I mean, I'm a patriot through and through. I love my country, served in the military. But when I got to these other countries and you see a country like Djibouti, Africa, bring its, you know, I think its six athletes to the game, we almost scoff at that because we have this, you know, just incredible, you know, mega-giant of Olympian athletes.
But then when Jamaica sends a bobsled team to the Olympics or Djibouti, Africa, you know, they send a small delegation, it means the world. For once, the eyes of the world are on this country that normally just kind of gets marginalized. And it's such a neat thing to see how much they put themselves through, even if it's not totally accurate, to be a bobsledder team in the, you know, Winter Olympics.
CONAN: Well, it was, in part, based...
HORWITZ: Based loosely.
CONAN: ...on a true story. And as you say, there was something of a comedic approach.
DOUG E. DOUG: (as Sanka Coffie) Ice. Ice.
LEON: (as Derice Bannock) Yes, it's kind of a winter sport, you know.
DOUG: (as Sanka Coffie) You mean winter as in ice?
LEON: (as Derice Bannock) Maybe.
DOUG: (as Sanka Coffie) You mean winter as in igloos and Eskimos and penguins and ice?
LEON: (as Derice Bannock) Possibly.
DOUG: (as Sanka Coffie) See you.
HORWITZ: Mike, I'm so grateful to you, because I really love this movie. It is loosely based on the true story. I mean, there was a Jamaican national bobsled team in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, and I think even later. And this is, you know, look, it's a John Candy comedy, so...
HORWITZ: ...you know, there's a sort of limit to the intellectual level of this thing, but it's really a lot of fun.
MIKE: Yeah, yeah. Well, and that's why I love it so much. It captures that Olympic spirit. And I think that's what we love about Olympic-based movies.
HORWITZ: Right. We're rooting for the underdog.
MIKE: Right. Right. Not only the underdogs, but just the human spirit, just getting out there and getting it, you know?
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Mike.
MIKE: Of course. Have a good day.
CONAN: You, too. Here's an email. This is from Linda in French Settlement, Louisiana: My favorite...
HORWITZ: Wow. I thought all of Louisiana was a French settlement. Never mind. I'm sorry.
CONAN: My favorite Olympic movie is "Downhill Racer." There's nothing very heroic about these guys. They are just really good at the particular sport. It has Robert Redford and a young Gene Hackman as the obnoxious coach. The action shots are exciting, though the style of the movie is kind of dated. I still watch it every time it comes on TV, and I like it better - ho-hum - than "Chariots of Fire."
HORWITZ: And I didn't remember that the Olympics were actually an element in "Downhill Racer." I think you're exactly right, or at least they're training for it. There are a lot of those. There are movies where people are training for the Olympics. And the Olympics is a kind of governing principle, you know, the big time is looming.
CONAN: And here is another email. This is from Liz in Kettering, Ohio. Is that...
HORWITZ: Kettering, right near my hometown of Dayton.
CONAN: "Walk, Don't Run," Cary Grant's last movie from 1966. It takes place in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
HORWITZ: Right, about race walking. It was - it's a great movie, with Timothy Hutton's father, Jim Hutton, I think.
CONAN: And this is from Anthony: For my money, the best film about the Olympics is "Munich." Great cast and an amazing storyline that I was not alive to see unfold in real time.
It was interesting. There was a great controversy this year that there was no tribute to the Israeli athletes killed in Munich 30 - 40 years ago.
HORWITZ: Forty years ago. That's right. And there's also a documentary by Kevin Macdonald, who's a great documentarian, who also directed the feature - the fiction feature "The Last King of Scotland" - well, sort of fiction. And that's called "One Day in September." And it's a 1999 film, and it's about the murder of the 11 Israeli athletes at the '72 summer games in Munich. And it won the Academy Award for best documentary feature in the 2000 Oscars. It's true, "Munich" and "One Day in September" are not what we think about - maybe often enough when we think about the Olympics, but those are Olympic films.
CONAN: In that film, "One Day in September," the wife of one of the men who was killed, Andre Spitzer, recounts how he approached the Lebanese players during those games, even as their countries were still formally at war.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER")
ANKIE SPITZER: So he went over them and he asked them: How were your results? And I'm from Israel, and how did it go? And to my big amazement, I saw that the people responded, and they shook hands with him and they talked to him, and they asked him about his results. I'll never forget in my (unintelligible) when he turned around and came back towards with me this huge smile on his face and he said: You see? This is what I was dreaming about.
CONAN: That from "Munich" - that - excuse me - "One Day in September." "Munich" was really more about the aftermath of that and the implications of the Israeli teams that went in and got back at all of the people who are involved in Munich and, tragically, one person who was not involved in Munich. So...
HORWITZ: Right. And we did not mention it's a Steven Spielberg movie. So...
CONAN: There we go. Murray Horwitz is with us. Let's see if we can go next to Gary, Gary with us from Buffalo in New York.
CONAN: What's your nominee?
GARY: My nominee is "Personal Best."
CONAN: Why "Personal Best"?
GARY: Because it was a story that took place at the Olympics that we ultimately didn't go to.
HORWITZ: Right, right, right.
GARY: And it was, what I thought, it was a piece that reveal the human side of the athletes involved, the idea of situational romance. You're so close to someone that you can't help but get involved. I forget. Was it Mariel Hemingway?
HORWITZ: Right. Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly, who was a real runner. And the coach was Scott Glenn.
CONAN: And here's a...
GREG: And they developed a relationship (unintelligible) that was rooted in the - in their proximity and the tension that came with prepping. And I just thought it was a very human film.
CONAN: And at one point, Mariel Hemingway is convinced she is totally messed up.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PERSONAL BEST")
MARIEL HEMINGWAY: (as Chris Cahill) Oh, Mr. Tingloff, I'm sorry. I know I can do better if you could just give me another chance.
SCOTT GLENN: (as Terry Tingloff) You ought to fall on your face more often.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: See? I told you you've been great. Hey, Terry, what was my time?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Beautiful. You all right? You all right?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you. (unintelligible)
CONAN: She made it. Except, of course, then the Olympics were cancelled.
HORWITZ: And the 1980 Olympics hover over this movie, because the athletes tried to qualify to the games, but then the boycott happens. But it's interesting. This is by Robert Towne, who wrote "Chinatown" and "Shampoo" and "Heaven Can Wait" - I mean, one of our greatest screenwriters. And it's one of a couple of movies that have to do with the Olympics that he did. I'm trying to - "The Cutting Edge," I think, might have been the other one that he wrote. But it's - I agree with Gary. It's a very human story.
CONAN: We're talking with Murray Horwitz about the greatest Olympic movies ever made. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And we mentioned documentaries. There is, of course, a famous documentary in 1936.
HORWITZ: Yeah. We can't talk about these films without talking about probably the one, great masterpiece that really is in - and it is, and - but we got to talk about the filmmaker who is a problem...
CONAN: Leni Riefenstahl.
HORWITZ: ...Leni Riefenstahl, and that's "Olympia." It's really the one we have to begin with, because it's affected all sports movies and all sports TVs since it was made in 1936. She had all of the money and all of the backing and all of the people that Hitler wanted to give her. And so there's - she was, I think, probably the first one to use slow motion in athletic competition shots, tracking shots. You know, we see that little robot camera going alongside the gymnast when they're doing their floor exercises? That's something Leni Riefenstahl came up with.
Much of what see in everyday sports coverage was invented, or at least first showed up in films by Leni Riefenstahl, who, in my opinion, is a morally reprehensible character. But, you know, we have to give credit where credit's due. And "Olympia," a long movie, and a movie that tries to be poetic and actually succeeds a little bit, is very much worth seeing.
CONAN: And here's an email about a not-yet-released documentary, "Rising from Ashes," about the Rwandan cycling team. One member qualified, carried the flag in the ceremonies, will race on August 11th, five years in the making, amazing. Also about healing from genocide, they will add footage and release it in 2012. So...
HORWITZ: I am glad to know about it. And we must give a kind of pride of place. Of course, the ground rules of this is always you don't talk about TV, and most of these films were made for TV. But Bud Greenspan is the greatest Olympic documentarian, and some incredible moments are captured. I think many of or listeners will remember when Derek Redmond was helped across the finish line by his father when he collapsed on the track. And that's captured in a Bud Greenspan film, and there are a million of them.
CONAN: David's on the line with us from Des Moines.
DAVID: Yeah. Hello.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air.
DAVID: Yeah, thank you. One of my favorites is "Prefontaine," and I think that falls in that category where you mentioned earlier, it's more about the buildup to the Olympics and not necessarily Olympics itself.
CONAN: Yeah, this is a film where the great distance runner who went to the '72 Olympics gained stardom while running in college.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "PREFONTAINE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: One at a time. One at a time.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Pre, how'd you feel about the race?
JARED LETO: (as Steve Prefontaine) Well, if I'd have gone out stronger, I could've set an American record today.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: You're disappointed? You set an NCAA record.
LETO: (as Steve Prefontaine) Well, I can run better, a lot better. But I need better competition to do it.
CONAN: It's a pretty nice movie, Murray.
HORWITZ: It's a very well-regarded movie, and it was a little bit overshadowed by a movie that came out a year later. Would I have been upset if I had made "Prefontaine"? Maybe a little bit. Tom Hanks produced a movie called "Without Limits" that tells basically the same story, fictionalizing it a little bit more. The coach, Bill Bowerman, who was one of the two coaches, along with - I've got it somewhere here.
Anyway, he was one of his two coaches. He went on to found Nike, because he built shoes for Steve Prefontaine and other people, and he became a founder of Nike. He's made into a much bigger character and - but "Prefontaine" didn't have any stars in it. It was a guy named Jared Leto, and it wasn't Tom Hanks. It wasn't Tom Cruise and all those other - Tom Cruise, not Tom Hanks produced it.
CONAN: OK. Now, I am going to nominate one, this along with Marie from Phoenix and Joanne in Ypsilanti and Christina in Jacksonville, Florida, who all nominate "Miracle." This is the story of the, of course, 1980 U.S. Hockey Team. I was at that game, but I didn't get to hear this speech.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MIRACLE")
KURT RUSSELL: (as Herb Brooks) Their time is done. It's over. I'm sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw 'em. This is your time. Now go out there and take it.
HORWITZ: Wow. I got chills just - I mean, this is a great movie.
HORWITZ: And I'm sorry, I would like to think that even if you're not a citizen of the United States, you would love this movie. It's a great story, and it's well-told.
HORWITZ: Oh, I'm so glad you asked. One of my favorite films of all time, "Million Dollar Legs," filmed at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1932. It is a comic masterpiece with W.C. Fields, Ben Turpin. It's a metaphor for politics and life. Jack Oakie. Check it out, "Million Dollar Legs." You will laugh.
CONAN: Murray Horwitz, our favorite film buff. Our film festival will resume after I get back from vacation. I'm taking a couple of weeks off in Alaska. Murray, good to talk to you.
HORWITZ: I give you the gold medal for vacations.
CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.