I’ll admit it: Despite the waste and corruption that often go hand-and-hand with their undertaking, I am easily seduced by the Olympics. Given that coverage (live or tape delayed) often occurs round-the-clock, the looming Summer Games in Rio de Janiero will prove to be an extraordinary temptation over the next 2 weeks, especially for this perpetual early riser. Although I love watching the relatively obscure sports that are often broadcast in those pre-dawn hours, I’ll inevitably watch some track & field, too—races that often get front-and-center attention in the TV coverage, not only because the US always does very well in them, but because of the natural mythology around naming “The World’s Fastest Human” in the 100-meter dash.
Certainly, Track & Field has played a more prominent part in movies about the Summer Olympics than any other sport—most recently with the historical drama Race (Hopkins, 2016) about Jesse Owens in the 1936 games. While not the first black athlete to medal in the 100m, his victory that year (exactly 80 years ago today) carried enormous symbolic weight because the games were held in Berlin under the shadow of Hitler and orchestrated by Joseph Goebbels and the propaganda arm of the Third Reich. In defiance of the host country’s insistence that no Jewish or “Negro” athletes compete, Owens’ 4 gold medals struck a powerful blow against the dogma of racial superiority that was a driving engine of the Nazi Party.
The movie isn’t bad. Stephan James is good in the lead role, and the story is an important one. Predictably, the double meaning of the title is a prominent theme, since not only did Owens face systemic prejudice at Ohio State (where the movie begins), but he felt enormous pressure from the NAACP not to compete in Berlin as a gesture of protest against how African-Americans were still being oppressed in the US. Although the horrific explicitness of that racism isn’t depicted as vividly as it was in 42, the movie follows many of the same beats as that recent (superior) Jackie Robinson film. There’s even a scene where German runner Luz Long befriends Jesse in front of the entire stadium of Germans (and the Fuhrer) that echoes what southerner Pee Wee Reese would do with teammate Jackie in Cincinnati decades later. Long’s scene with Owens in private after their race is perhaps the best in the film—two athletes with deep mutual respect acknowledging the role they’re each playing as propaganda tools of their governments. But like many movies dedicated to recreating real events, the other characterizations are cookie-cutter and the final result is more of a history lesson than an emotionally engaging drama.
What’s interesting about the film, though, is that its story directly links to the two most celebrated films about the Summer Olympics: Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938) and Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981). The connection with the former is obvious. Riefenstahl (played by Black Book’s Carice van Houten) was perhaps the most prominent female film director in the world at the time and is an important character in the movie. While commissioned by Goebbels as a tribute to the wonders of a modern Germany (we see the two of them watch rushes of her coverage), Riefenstahl went beyond that short-sighted mandate and redefined cinematic language when it came to form and athletics in ways that are now commonplace on ESPN and advertising today. It’s still a problematic film, with the ever-present swastikas and the specter of the Holocaust around the corner, but it’s not a paean to National Socialism the way the country’s leaders might have hoped for. Her eye transcends the politics of the piece, even if it can't divorce itself from it completely. And she doesn’t give short shrift to Owens’ accomplishments either. In a scene in Race where Riefenstahl asks Owens to help her shoot some pick-ups for his Gold medal Long Jump that would later be inserted into her film, they have this exchange:
Jesse: Isn’t that cheating?Leni: Cheating?Jesse: Yeah. I’m just saying it’s not the actual jump I made.Leni: You did make that jump. We all saw it. You made history out there. All I’m doing is making sure years from now, those people who weren’t there can see it too. ‘Cause they’ll never forget what you did.
And she did. And we haven’t. Riefenstahl is one of the most complex figures in movie history, and one of my favorite documentaries is about her: The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Muller, 1993). In it, the film doesn’t blink at the insidious contribution she made to the Nazis’ ascendancy through her notorious film The Triumph of the Will. But it also shows in the many decades after WWII that she was smart, resourceful, innovative, gutsy, and supremely talented. Perhaps the best you can say about her is that she was a fervid aesthetician who lived in denial about how her gifts were exploited for evil. Other judgments, far harsher, would be equally fair. But this exchange in the film also brings the conversation about myth-making in an ironic full circle, because Owens’ legacy is also helped immeasurably by her film.
The connective tissue between Race and Chariots of Fire is interesting, too. Larry Snyder (SNL’s Jason Sudekis) was Owens’ coach at Ohio State, and also on the US Track & Field team that competed against Brits Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell in the 1924 Paris games. We even see a picture of Snyder with Charlie Paddock (played by Dennis Christopher In Chariots). Sadly, Snyder was in a plane crash weeks before the games and never competed. But he did go on to coach the US team in Helsinki (1952) and Rome (1960).
Abrahams, like Owens 12 years later, won the 100m (his time was 10.6 seconds; Owens, 10.3). The film shows that he dedicated his athletic pursuits to fight the antisemitism he faced in the English establishment. This resonates in Race because on the eve of the 100x4 relay in Berlin, the US benched its two Jewish runners out of deference to the Germans. Owens ended up subbing in that race and there is a powerful scene where his teammates talk to him about what a victory would mean to them, watching from the sidelines. They won, of course. Although Chariots doesn’t depict it, Abrahams also won a medal in the 4x100 (a silver) in Paris.
I think Chariots often gets a bad rap. It does have a bit of Masterpiece Theater stuffiness about it, but it also does address religion (Abraham’s Judaism and Liddell’s Christianity) in ways that you rarely see in mainstream movies anymore—with thoughtfulness, sincerity, and lack of piety. Vangelis’ iconic synthesizer score manages to be anachronistic but still mines emotional depths. It’s the only Oscar nomination Ian Holm has ever received (an oversight bordering on the criminal). Its period details are meticulous (lacking starting blocks, the runners use small trowels to dig in footholds before the race, something we see Owens do in Race, too). And with the recent Star Trek reboots, there’s a perverse delight in seeing Spock’s father (Ben Cross) and the Borg Queen (Alice Krige) fall in love. Plus it was my first introduction, at 11 years old, to Scotland, and I’ll admit to thinking of Liddell training across the lush countryside when 20 years later, I hiked up to Arthur’s Seat, the mountain peak overlooking Edinburgh.
There are also a couple of postage stamp references worth noting in Chariots. When Abrahams is enrolled in Cambridge (somewhere I’ve also visited), we see him and future Olympian teammate Aubrey Montague signing up for various extra-curricular activities.
Harold (to Aubrey): “Rugby club, golfing society, tennis, squash club, flora and fauna!, philately—is that all? You’re idle, man. Idle!”
So stamp collecting was a viable academic pastime back then. A few seconds later, we see a sign for another club: The Cinematic Club. Given that the date is 1919, it strikes me as perhaps a little early for such a club, especially for a medium that was still associated with the lower classes at the time, not the halls of privilege. Plus, even the most hardcore cinephile would be hard-pressed to name a notable British silent film up to that time (unlike other parts of Europe).
The second stamp reference comes a little later. The film has already used Aubrey’s letters to his mother as a narrative framing device for the film. Now, in Scotland, Sandy—a friend to the Liddells—makes a toast to the family, most of whom are returning to their missionary work in China, where Eric (Ian Charleson) was born.
Mrs. Liddell: I’m relying on you now to keep them all out of mischief.Sandy: Oh, that I will, Mrs. L. And if they do transgress, I’ll pop the details on a postcard and you can read all about it before you can say "Marco Polo".Eric: Cost you a fortune in postage stamps.
Tragically, Ian Charleson and Brad Davis, who plays American Olympian Jackson Scholz, would be dead within a decade, both from AIDS.
The Jesse Owens Olympic stamp is Scott # 2496. He never competed in the hurdles in the Olympics, but the stamp commemorating his records set in the US, part of the Celebrate the Century series, is Scott # 3185j.