Monday, July 30, 2012

The Olympics Discover Movieland

I barely remember the opening ceremonies of the 1984 L.A. Olympics. I know they were staged by David Wolper, producer of such prize-winning TV events as Roots and The Thorn Birds. What I vaguely recall is dancers doing a hoedown and a score of pianists banging out “Rhapsody in Blue,” seated at white grand pianos, before Rafer Johnson mounted the steps of the L.A. Coliseum to ignite the Olympic torch. There wasn’t a cinematic projection in sight, but everyone griped that it was all too Hollywood.

Fast-forward to the 21st century. Opening ceremonies are now expected to be grand spectacles, geared as much to the worldwide TV audience as to ticket-holders inside the stadium. In Beijing, the 2008 Olympics kicked off with a breathtaking extravaganza directed by Zhang Yimou (whose masterful period films include Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers). This year, the opening event of the London Olympics was entrusted to Danny Boyle, best known for his Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire but also responsible for directing Trainspotting and other gutsy indie films. Not only did Boyle use filmed images as a backdrop for the action on the stadium floor, but he also called on show biz personalities (including Kenneth Branagh and Daniel Craig) to add sparkle to the proceedings. Craig took part in the ceremonies’ single most remarkable segment, when -— in character as James Bond -- he appeared on film to escort 86-year-old Queen Elizabeth II to the ceremonies. They climbed into an official helicopter, and then (in a carefully edited sequence) seemed to parachute out over London and into the stadium. Obviously, movie magic made that happen.

The magic of movies was also featured in a comic sequence in which British comic Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), bored with his one-note gig in a symphony orchestra, dreamed himself into a clip from Chariots of Fire. This 1981 film, remembered today mostly for its haunting score, details the story of two real-life track stars who competed for Britain at the 1924 Olympics. The film’s most iconic moment comes earlier, with the British team sprinting along a lonely beach, as inspirational music swells. Boyle seamlessly inserted Atkinson into the scene, jostling for position among the runners, then cheating by thumbing a ride to get ahead of the pack, finally elbowing a “teammate” to the ground so he could claim victory for himself.

One big difference between films and sporting events is that the drama inherent in athletic competitions doesn’t follow a pre-approved script. Some of history’s greatest filmmakers have used the spontaneity of sports as the raw material for brilliant documentaries. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, capturing the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was intended to glorify the rise of the Third Reich, but ended up as something of a paean to an African-American track star, Jesse Owens. Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad gave a human face to the 1964 games.

These days Chariots of Fire doesn’t win much respect, but I remember it fondly for taking me back to the era when an Olympic team was a gentleman’s club, one in which a runner who was Jewish or the son of Christian missionaries would not feel at home. Few other features use the Olympics as a backdrop, but one exception is Cary Grant’s last film, Walk, Don’t Run. Grant, at sixty-two, was no longer willing to be cast as a romantic lead. In Walk, Don’t Run, set during the Tokyo Olympics, he endearingly plays Cupid to Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton. This is the only film I know that spotlights race-walking, one of the goofiest-looking sports on the Olympic roster.


  1. Ah, but when will we finally get our curling movie?

    I enjoyed the opening ceremonies this year - sure, it was big and overdone - but that's what it's supposed to be, isn't it? Of course the segment with 007 and Her Majesty was my favorite.

    I have yet to see Chariots of Fire - but that could happen any day now - as I appreciate quiet drama a lot more than I did 30+ years ago.

    Cheers, Ms. G!

  2. Curling movie? Well, in the past year there was a movie about championship birdwatching, featuring some major comedy stars, though it didn't seem to go over too well. But do see Chariots of Fire, and let me know what you think.