Faster, Higher, Wronger

In a fit of sports-mad enthusiasm, MostlyFilm asked some of its contributors to write about sports films to mark the London Olympics. Some of them stayed on topic.

Read on after the hop, skip and jump.

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India

by Uncle Frank

Lagaan is a long film about a cricket match.  I have no interest in or knowledge of cricket, and I’m wary of long films, so this was not something I would normally rush to see.  Set during the British rule of India, it’s the story of a cricketing grudge match between sneering British bastard Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne) and rebellious local villager Bhuvan (Aamir Khan, also the producer).  At stake is the village’s lagaan (land tax), which means the difference between utter poverty and relative wealth.

There are lots of reasons why Lagaan is great.  It immediately became established as the perfect introduction to Bollywood for white folks, as it looks and feels much of the time like the sort of costume drama with which they are familiar (though with songs).  But for the purposes of this piece, it’s also because it makes cricket seem comprehensible – and even exciting.  That’s partly because it’s not about cricket at all, but about national pride, dignity, freedom from oppression: all the things that epic, crowd-pleasing movies tend to be about, which helps explain the film’s Oscar nomination.

Helpfully, the Indian characters are also as ignorant about cricket as I was, resulting in scenes where Captain Russell’s nice sister (Rachel Shelley) explains the rules.  During the climactic match (played over three days, and about an hour of screen time) a commentator bellows out helpful information like “The batting team that scores more runs wins the game,” and “the ball crosses the boundary and the English get four more runs”.

It hardly needs saying that the match goes to one final ball, with the decent Bhuvan and moustache-twirling Russell facing each other – it’s that kind of film.  Cheesy, maybe, but done with the kind of passion and commitment that sweeps an audience along with it. I’ve still never seen a cricket match, but I’d recommend Lagaan to anyone.

The Harry Potter films

by Mr Moth

Primarily a narrative device to explain Harry Potter’s curiously well-honed flying skills, Quidditch is easily among the worst fictional sports, with rules as arbitrary and self-defeating as Calvinball. But I’m certain that has been covered elsewhere and by better thinkers than I – I’m here to talk about it on-screen. Even bad sport can make good spectacle, and this brutal, deranged sport played on flying broomsticks half a mile in the air should provide plenty of that.

It’s notable that Quidditch, then, barely features in the films. When Columbus was directing it was front-and-centre, in-keeping with the rosy-cheeked, Blytonish air of the first two books. It was also terrible. Shoddy CGI meshed dutifully with the thumpingly pedestrian vision of the director and Quidditch was a complete eyesore. When he departed, at the point the books and films took a darker tone, so Quidditch began to diminish. In The Prisoner of Azkaban Quidditch is a gruelling, rain-soaked affair filled with glimpses of hovering Dementors and half-seen opponents; more ghost train than rollercoaster.

By the fourth film, Quidditch was almost totally absent, relegated to a brief sequence at the World Cup in favour of the Triwizard Tournament, and we never really see it again after that. Does anyone mourn its passing? I doubt it. Cuaron showed how it could be exciting, in  Azkaban, but even Rowling seems somewhat embarrassed by the whole thing and relegates it to an off-page experience by the time of the fifth and sixth books. It was, it seems, unsustainable as a spectator sport even in the imagination of the reader.

Shaolin Girl

by The Belated Birthday Girl

In 2001, Hong Kong filmmaker Stephen Chow made Shaolin Soccer (belatedly released in the UK in 2004), in which he entertainingly combined kung fu and footy.  In 2008,  Japanese director Katsuyuki Motohiro, with Stephen Chow on board as exec producer, made Shaolin Girl, which did a similar trick substituting lacrosse for footy.

And it is very good fun indeed.  The story of Rin, a young Japanese woman who returns to Japan after studying kung fu at the Shaolin Temple, and who ends up becoming the star player of her university lacrosse team using her kung fu skills, Shaolin Girl is very funny, with some seriously good action sequences.  Kou Shibasaki is charming in the role of Rin, and the cast also includes several alumni from Stephen Chow films (Chi Chung, Tin Kai Man and  Kitty Zhang Yuqi) who bring a bit more Hong Kong film silliness to the party.  Along with the main lacrosse-centric plot, there is a subplot involving evil men in suits and attempts to get Rin over to the “Dark Side” of kung fu, which leads to the Kill Bill-meets-Game of Death-inspired finale.  Shaolin Girl never got a release in the UK, nor even a DVD, as far as I know, but a DVD with English subtitles is available from Hong Kong.

Death Race 2000

by Paul Duane

I hate sports but I love Death Race 2000.

It’s like WWF wrestling but in armoured cars with armed drivers & a champion (nicknamed Frankenstein) who’s been in so many crashes he might just be an undead cyborg, held together by his latex costume and mask. Beach volleyball just does NOT compare to this.

Its unique combo of pop-art violence & sweeping, broadbrush satire means the only other 20th century Hollywood film I can compare it to in its equal-opportunities misanthropy is Robocop, and Robocop respects the time-honoured heroic redemptive character arc in a way that would never happen in DR2K, where the hero eventually becomes President only because the American people are always not only wrong, but happily, idiotically, pig-in-shitically wrong.

There’s not a lot more to say about DR2K except that you need to see it. My reason for writing this is just to share my recent discovery of its major antecedent, the book that in my opinion carved out the niche for this sort of malign, hilarious satire – Daniel P Mannix’s “Those About to Die” (also known as “The Way of the Gladiator”), a best-seller which tells with evident, lip-licking, sometimes genuinely shocking relish, the story of the gradually escalating excesses of the Roman Arena. However it’s also, and not accidentally, a remarkable Rorschach blot of the American psyche during the declining years of its own empire.

The book’s emphasis on cruelty, sadism, the nitty-gritty of training animals to rape humans and so on, means it’s never been out of print since its 1958 publication. It also (according to some) provided the basis for Gladiator, except that Ridley Scott missed the point by a mile. But Paul Bartel’s Gladiator 2000? That, I’d like to see.

Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire

by Jim Eaton-Terry

This is a bit of a cheat as snooker, like anything else you can do with a pint on the go, isn’t a sport.  But how anyone can resist Alan Clarke’s lost classic, perhaps the greatest musical about snooker ever made?

I’ve never really understood how Alan Clarke, somewhere between Made in Britain and Rita, Sue and Bob Too,  came to make an MTV musical in which Phil Daniels, playing a thinly disguised Jimmy White, is manipulated into a grudge match with Alun Armstrong’s vampire Ray Reardon.  Put like that, it sounds like any other vampire snooker musical, but what sets Billy aside is both the quality of the songs (it’s 25 years since I saw it and I can still manage a reasonable performance of “I’m the One” ) and the strength of the cast, with everyone from Don Henderson to Zoot Money in a clown nose turning up.

None of the best songs appear on YouTube but here’s Armstrong’s big number, and a little flash or two of Bruce Payne  as Billy’s manager, inexplicably named The One.

Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire has been etched on my memory since what was, for all I know, its single, late night showing on Channel  4.  I’ve only ever met one other person who’s seen the film, and for a long time I half-thought I’d dreamed it,  but like all such half-grasped pop culture memories it’s now on Wikipedia and probably available on your iPad at the push of a button.  One day I’ll sit down and find out how bad it really is.


by the Tramp

In 1998, a year after South Park hit TV screens for the first time, Trey Parker and Matt Stone made a live action sports movie that lampooned everything they hated about modern sports – the commercialism, the cult of personality, the on-pitch/rink fighting and over the top in-game celebrations.

Naturally Parker and Stone didn’t make a real sports movie. Instead they invented a new sport; BASEketball – a combination of basketball and baseball rules with a dollop of trash-talking.

The film lacks some of the sophistication of the South Park movie and Team America. If you have seen either of these films you are probably wondering what sophistication I am referencing, which should tell you everything you need to know about where this comedy is pegged. It is low. Lower than an  Adam Sandler movie. It is childish, it is stupid and  I feel ashamed that it made me laugh, but laugh I did.

What BASEketball does, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, is naively promote the idea that sportsmanship is about love of a game, loyalty to fans and rejection of anything that exploits those fans for pure commercial gain. It links players fees with overcrowded stadiums and sweatshop clothing lines. It also highlights how much more effective its two stars and creators are as voices behind animations.

Battlefield Baseball

by Spank The Monkey

Hollywood keeps making films about baseball, and the rest of the world keeps ignoring them. It took Japanese director Yudai Yamaguchi to realise what you need to make a watchable movie about the sport: sudden, violent death.

Seido High School’s baseball squad has been drawn to play against Gedo High, a team of monsters notorious for killing their opponents. Seido’s only hope for victory is their gifted new pupil Jubeh (Tak Sakaguchi). Unfortunately, a tragedy in his past has caused Jubeh to renounce baseball forever, and he’s vowed to only use his skills to beat people up. Will he change his mind? (SPOILER: yes.)

Adapted from a manga (as if you couldn’t guess), Battlefield Baseball is a pleasingly stupid piece of work, apparently shot on a ¥100 shop’s budget. Part of its charm comes from Sakaguchi’s deadpan charisma, but most of it comes from the anything-goes approach to plotting. Over 85 minutes, we get surreal running gags, ramshackle effects, hypermelodramatic twists and a couple of musical numbers. It’s only afterwards that you realise there’s hardly any baseball, which may be the real secret of making a watchable baseball movie.

Chess Fever

by Philip Concannon

Chess may not appear to be the most cinematic of sports, but in the early days of Russian cinema, many young directors revelled in the opportunity to breathe vivid life into prosaic subjects. Set against the backdrop of the 1925 Moscow International Tournament, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Chess Fever is a short film about a young man (Vladimir Fogel) who is completely obsessed with the game. When we first meet him, Fogel is busy playing a game against himself, and when he finally leaves his apartment to meet his long-suffering girlfriend (Anna Zemtsova), he only gets as far as a chess shop, which he tries to walk past but finds himself drawn to as if by a magnetic force.

Fogel’s character is not the only one in Moscow to be in the grip of chess fever. When an infuriated Zemtsova throws his numerous mini chess sets out of the window, the pedestrians who find them can’t resist instantly playing. Even a policeman, in hot pursuit of a criminal, instead finds himself sitting down for a match with the suspect when the opportunity presents itself. Chess has long been a sport associated with obsession and madness, and Pudovkin plays on that idea, through Fogel’s inability to see any chequered pattern without wishing to play, and Zemtsova being driven to distraction by the chess activities she sees wherever she looks.

Chess Fever is fast-paced and very funny, with Pudovkin staging a series of sharp visual gags (including one extended skit involving kittens) and displaying a firm grasp of editing and camera techniques that would later lead to his great features MotherStorm Over Asia and The End of St Petersburg. The film may be just a slight romantic comedy, but it has some historical interest too – chess fans can spot many famous players of the day, including World Champion José Raúl Capablanca, while film buffs can keep an eye out for the Russian director Boris Barnet in a small cameo.

3 thoughts on “Faster, Higher, Wronger

  1. Cricket is both easily comprehensible AND exciting, Frank! I started watching about three-four years ago and it’s GRATE. That is all.

      1. Lagaan’s cricket team is conveniently made of up various “types” from around India who just happen to be in this village. Including a crippled untouchable who practically invents spin bowling. Guaranteed to make any cricket fan start swearing entertainingly in several languages, that one.

        Cricket could do with more song and dance routines though.

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