Sport has lent itself to the movies in a unique way since the dawn of motion picture, and remains one of its most popular genres. There is something about the way cinema can expand and expound on the drama, the emotion, the triumph and tragedy of athletic competition that continues to make us laugh, cry, boo and cheer, all while chugging overpriced soda and devouring fake buttered popcorn. In thinking about it, I realize that some of the coolest films of all time have been sports-themed, or at least included a memorable sports scene that captured the public’s imagination and in so doing became an indelible movie classic. Now, I’m not claiming that these are the best sports films of all time or that people won’t take some exception to them, I’m just saying that for my money, they are some of the most enduring. Without further ado, I offer ten awesome sports themed films;
10. The Hustler
I know, I know, pool isn’t a sport, blah blah blah, but this picture still rates a top ten in my opinion. The reason I suggest this is because of the dramatic showdown between the two disparate characters that is the highlight of the film. Paul Newman plays ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson, a young and extremely gifted pool player with a talent for self destruction dreaming of his big chance to play the ultimate hustler, ‘Minnesota Fats’, memorably played by a decidedly serious Jackie Gleason. Made in 1961, the film is a uniquely gritty and realistic portrayal of a bygone era of booze, broken dreams and broken people. During their epic marathon match, the camera brilliantly captures the ebb and flow of two masters at work and the film remains a classic, primarily on the strength of the performances by Newman, Gleason and George C. Scott as Eddie’s sleazy manager (Bert Gordon); it probably didn’t hurt that I completely fell in love with Piper Laurie who was unforgettable as Eddie’s alcoholic, lame girlfriend Sarah Packard.
9. The Longest Yard
Many readers of this site are no doubt far too young to remember the wild, whacky 1970s, a time when one Burt Reynolds was among the biggest stars in Hollywood. ‘The Burtinator’ appeared in several popular films of which The Longest Yard was near the top of the list. The film is a tale of a former professional football quarterback Paul Crewe (Reynolds) sentenced to jail after a booze and drugs-induced DUI. The prison is run by the sociopathic Warden Hazen, played by Eddie Albert, who tasks Crewe with coaching a team of convicts against their despised guards in a football game. Hazen demands Crewe ensures the guards win, blackmailing him to throw the game by threatening to revoke his upcoming parole unless he gets the outcome he wants. Equal parts comedy and drama, the big game is a test of Crewe’s potential willingness to sell out his fellow inmates in order to secure his freedom. The film though undeniably somewhat dated, was a major hit that puts the Adam Sandler remake to shame on all counts and continues to be a time capsule for an era in American cinema that attempted to make films with at least some realistic intensity. Equal parts profanity, violence and humor, it remains a film of handlebar mustaches, bellbottomed leisure suits and a pre-rug Burt.
8. The Natural
Robert Redford stars as Roy Hobbes, an unknown, middle-aged baseball talent whose youth was stolen by fateful circumstances that prevented him from a career in the game that he adores. The 1984 film follows Hobbes as he tries out for and earns a spot with the fictional New York Knights and leads them from major league laughingstocks to championship contenders. Redford perfectly captures the angst and earnestness of a man staking everything he has on his last chance to fulfill his destiny. It’s a classic feel-good story of determination, pride and belief in oneself that sees Redford embody the time tested ‘man from nowhere rise to the occasion’ meme, using baseball as a metaphor for the age old mantra that hard work, talent and resolve can take one to the top of the heap. Beautifully photographed and edited, it had audiences cheering for the aging ‘Wonderboy’ in droves, and you will too.
7. The Pride of the Yankees
The dramatized account of New York Yankees superstar Lou Gehrig, cut down late in his phenomenal career after being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (subsequently dubbed ‘Lou Gehrig’s disease’) was a 1942 biography of the beloved Hall of Famer starring Gary Cooper. Gehrig played first base for the Yankees for 17 stellar seasons, earning him the nickname ‘The Iron Horse’ for his epic record of 2,170 consecutive appearances, many of which were alongside his idol Babe Ruth. The film is most memorable for Cooper’s stoic but endearing performance as the modest, unassuming legend that culminates in Gehrig’s farewell speech before a packed crowd at Yankee stadium on July 4, 1939 during ‘Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day’ honoring the dying star who had announced his retirement just two months prior. I defy anyone to experience Cooper’s re-enactment of Gehrig’s actual farewell speech, without tearing up. On July 2, 1941, Gehrig died in his sleep at age 37, after which he received the ultimate tribute by not only gaining immediate Hall of Fame status, but also becoming the first player in the history of the majors to have his iconic number 4 retired by the Yankees. The film remains a wonderful portrayal of courage in the face of adversity.
6. The Bad News Bears
Had anyone suggested in 1976 that the story of a broken down alcoholic coaching a team of Little League baseball misfits would have appealed to movie fans to the extent the film would go on to become a cult classic, you probably knew Secretariat would win the Triple Crown as well, and if so, I hate you. Walter Matthau plays Morris Buttermaker, a boozy, profane washed up minor leaguer who enlists the aid of chain smoking badboy slugger Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle Haley) and ace pitcher Amanda Whurlizter (Tatum O’Neal) to help turn a team of perennial losers into self-respecting winners. The film features some classic exchanges between Matthau and the young cast, especially those with O’Neal who was still riding high from her Oscar-winning performance in Paper Moon. Audiences fell in love with the snappy, witty dialogue and classic chumps to champs story that far surpasses the 2005 remake. The anti-Disney qualities of prodigious cursing, frat boy humor and mid-’70’s tween angst made it one of the year’s top box office draws and it’s lost none of its appeal over the years.
Sylvester Stallone wrote and starred in this timeless story of low-life Philadelphia mob enforcer and semi-pro boxer Rocky Balboa who out of nowhere gets the chance of a lifetime to challenge for the heavyweight title. Given no chance at even surviving the contest, the film follows Rocky from no good bum to classy contender. The scene where Mickey (Burgess Meredith), the aging, crusty owner of the shabby gym Balboa frequented before he kicked him out, visits Rocky’s grubby apartment literally begging to be his trainer for the big fight, is the best thing in the film. Under his hardcore tutelage, Rocky begins to believe in himself like never before, setting the stage for the final showdown that sees him surpass his potential and give champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) the fight of his life. Audiences flocked to this uplifting tale of an average Joe who makes good and the film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, launching the career of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Though pretty much predictable in nature, the film was a smash hit and there’s no denying that the touching story struck all the right chords with film goers world wide who can still be heard shouting ‘ADRIAN!’ to this day.
4. Brian’s Song
Inspired by the real life friendship between Chicago bears running backs Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers, this 1971 ABC made-for-television film is a classic tear jerker that starred James Caan as Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Sayers. The two players become the first interracial roommates in ‘da Bears’ history as they both vie for the same starting spot on the team and develop a close bond that transcends race at a time when pro sports was still uncomfortably segregated. When Sayers endures a devastating knee injury that could have been career ending, Piccolo is instrumental in his friend’s triumphant recovery. The real test of their relationship occurs when Piccolo develops cancer and the film traces their steadfast determination to face his ordeal together. Piccolo succumbed to the disease at age 26, and the film’s recounting of his too soon demise literally reduced grown-ass men to floodgates of tears, and still does, take my word for it.
3. Chariots of Fire
This dramatized 1981 film of the real friendship fostered between nouveau riche Jewish Englishman Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and proudly middle class devout Catholic Scotsman Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) as they train for the 1924 Olympic Games is probably best known for the slow motion opening scene of numerous athletes running to the Oscar-winning score by Vangelis. Beautifully shot with an almost dreamlike quality, it perfectly sets the tone for the remainder of the picture. The two men from vastly different backgrounds love to race for very different reasons; Abrahams as a means of securing his place among British upper class society, while Liddell sees his competitive streak as a tribute to his faith in God. Though the film does have long, meandering sequences, the performances by Cross and Charleson are solid and moving throughout, while the training and racing scenes had audiences enthralled. The film is a delightfully crafted study of class consciousness, religious conviction and the sheer exuberance of sport that made it a box office hit and saw it win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
2. Raging Bull
Martin Scorcese‘s 1980 biopic of the life and career of former Middleweight boxing Champion Jake LaMotta was voted best picture of the decade and remains one of the all time cinema classics. Starring the incomparable Robert DeNiro as LaMotta and the always intense Joe Pesci as his brother and trainer Joey, this black and white triumph is a masterpiece of writing, directing, acting, cinematography and musical scoring that almost magically improves with time. DeNiro is mesmerizing as the self destructively violent but somehow sympathetic figure of a man tormented by personal demons of rage, jealousy and insecurity that constantly threaten to tear his life apart. Audiences were captivated by the savagery of the fight scenes both in and out of the ring that adeptly captured the volatility of the man known as ‘The Raging Bull.’ No matter how many times you view this picture, I guarantee that there will always be something new to discover in the mind-blowing performances of the entire cast, and the brilliance of its director that showcased the genius of Scorsese at the height of his powers. Pound for pound, it’s simply the best boxing film ever made.
Since I started with a film many might not consider sports themed, I may as well end with one. Simply say the words ‘Ben-Hur’ and anyone will tell you the one scene that sticks out in their mind is ‘the chariot race.’ This epic 1959 film traces the strained relationship between the Jewish Prince of Hur, Judah Ben-Hur (Charleton Heston) and his boyhood friend Messala (Steven Boyd) who returns to Jerusalem after many years away as Commander of the Roman Legions. After attempting to bribe Judah into betraying his people, his refusal enrages Messala who exploits a tragic accident against the new Governor to sentence his one-time friend to a Roman galley slave ship and imprison his mother and sister. Judah survives the ordeal by rescuing the ship’s Consul (or Captain) Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) after it’s sunk in battle. In gratitude, Arrius takes Judah to Rome where he becomes a victorious charioteer in the Great Circus and eventually adopts him as his son and heir. When he returns to Jerusalem as a Roman Consul, Judah confronts Messala and demands the whereabouts of his family, only to be informed later by the woman he loves (at the behest of his mother) that they have died. This sets the stage for the dramatic showdown between the two antagonists in the fantastic chariot race. Filmed on an enormous set built outside of Rome, this scene is a masterpiece from a bygone movie era, unmatched for sheer film making splendor and excitement. No matter how many times you see it, the tension, drama and spectacular cinematography of this scene remains unparalleled and it’s universally considered one of the best action sequences ever filmed. They just don’t make ’em like this anymore, folks.
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