Friday, July 30, 2021

Walking, Not Running, to Cinematic Gold: The Olympics at the Movies

I’m a great armchair Olympics fan. Much as I love movies, I’m mesmerized by spectacles, like sporting events, in which the outcome is entirely uncertain. In which the better competitor – at least on paper -- doesn’t always win. But watching the 2020/2021 Olympiad is not always pleasant. There’s been joy, certainly, but often the mood has been sober, even somber. It’s daunting to learn that Simon Biles is human after all, and even more daunting to discover that the boo-birds are now calling her names because, at a time of personal crisis, she’s not willing to put her body at risk for the sake of a medallion on a ribbon.

 Of course there’ve been movies about the Olympics, largely more focused on the joy of victory than the agony of defeat. After all, we expect our Olympics movies to be uplifting. One that certainly filled the bill was the 1982 top Oscar winner, Chariots of Fire. Some consider it soppy now, but I look back on this film with great pleasure. It’s a canny mix of history lesson and heart-tugging emotion, highlighting the fate of two very different runners on the British team that traveled to Paris in 1924 to compete in Olympic track and field. Ian Charleson plays Eric Liddell, a Scottish missionary to China who runs for the glory of God. Ben Cross portrays Harold Abrahams, a Jewish student at Cambridge who fights class snobbery and polite anti-Semitism as he exercises his passion for running. Each of the men succeeds, in his own way, with Abrahams, despite his less-than-lofty pedigree, going on to become the grand old man of British athletics.  Hokey? Maybe, but it really happened, and it’s fascinating to see the early days of a famous sports competition. And that much-parodied opening, with the runners – in training – striding down a Scottish beach to the majestic Vangelis score never fails to inspire me.

 The Tokyo Olympics of 1964 itself led to several films. One was a masterful documentary, Tokyo Olympiad, by Kon Ichikawa. Far more than a record of what happened at the Olympics that marked Japan’s post-war rise, it is a celebration of athletes and athletics, as well as a joyous view of the people of Tokyo interacting with a world event. The other film that captures (sort of) the Tokyo I remember from my college days is a breezy 1966 romantic comedy that updates a 1943 feature called The More the Merrier. The original had lampooned the post-World War II housing shortage in Washington DC. Walk, Don’t Run takes that plot thread and applies it to Tokyo, just prior to the Olympics: pretty Samantha Eggar announces she’ll be willing to share her apartment during the games, but she’s shocked when her applicant turns out to be Cary Grant, in his last film role, as a suave British tycoon who’s arrived too early for his luxurious hotel suite. And she’s even more flummoxed when Grant invites in a needy young American architect (Jim Hutton) who also happens to be a U.S. team member. Naturally, sparks fly, though Grant (who at sixty-plus had decided he was too old for romantic roles) plays Cupid, not Romeo.

 The film makes much (rather dated) comedy out of national stereotypes: obsequious Japanese, stuffy British, brash Americans, Russians bent on either drinking or spying. And despite the glimpses we catch of authentic Olympic venues, the film’s handling of the actual games is not exactly convincing. But the scene of Grant, in his skivvies, race-walking through crowded Tokyo streets to stave off a romantic kerfuffle is one worth savoring.

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