Sport and Cinema: The perfect love affair
The love affair between film and sport has been a longstanding one. And why shouldn’t there be a love affair? Sports provide filmmakers with a solid blueprint upon which they can construct a motion picture. At the crux of every great movie lies a great story and every sport is filled with great stories.
More importantly, a sport is filled with great stories whose underlying themes transcend what has occurred on the field of play into a virtual and vicarious world. In other words, it's a goldmine for filmmakers.
Why is sport such an effective vehicle to tell a story? Essentially, it does three things better than just about any other medium;
1) Sport enunciates morals and values
2) Sport is the manifestation of the human condition
3) Sport piques our most fundamental interest – what are our physical limits as a species?
Sport is a fantastic parable. At its essence, it is about overcoming all the challenges that are in front of you. Whether it is an indomitable opponent or surpassing your own limits, sport teaches us about life.
These lessons are universally applicable across multiple real-life situations. Films have used sport to communicate these lessons and morals. Take Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 Academy Award-winning classic – Rocky. It was the story of a young local boxer taking on the Heavyweight champion of the world and proving to everyone that hard work is the most important ingredient for success.
The movie’s budget was USD $1 million and earned over USD $225 million at the global box office. The audiences loved the movie and it catapulted Stallone into superstardom whilst also ensuring that 5 subsequent movies were made. In the case of Rocky, the underlying theme was that human will is greater than any challenge in front of us.
Films have also used sport to illustrate the importance of unity. Take the 2000 movie Remember the Titans about an African American football (American Football) coach, played by Denzel Washington, who is appointed as the head coach of a high school football team that has just integrated African American and white students post-segregation.
This movie is based on the true story of Coach Herman Boone who used the sport to unite a community that was fractured due to racial segregation. Similarly, Invictus is a biopic on how Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) and the then South African rugby captain (Francois Pienaar) used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unite a post-apartheid South Africa. IMDB lists are filled with movies of sports that speak about a larger message, that communicate morals and define right from wrong.
This brings us to the second reason. The human condition is one that plagues all of us. The existential question “Why?” Sports has beautifully articulated the response. With many sports movies, the protagonist(s) is on a journey to find themselves. They are seeking out the meaning of life and their reason to be.
The Million Dollar Baby is a movie that revolves around one woman’s journey to find herself through boxing. Even the 2013 biopic Rush about Formula 1’s greatest rivalry (that of Nicki Lauda and James Hunt) is a story of self-discovery for both drivers. Sport, maybe better than most, is able to articulate the journey of self-discovery that we all go through and movies have used this trait.
Finally, we are fascinated by knowing the limits of our species and how very few gifted individuals manage to truly test them. The history of sports movies is full of documentaries about these phenomenal individuals and teams.
One of the very first movies about sport was a documentary of sorts: Corbett and Courtney before the Kinetograph. It was a recorded boxing match divided into 6 one-minute rounds; its intention, that sport could be captured on film and shared with audiences.
Nadia, the 1984 documentary, is a biographical movie about Nadia Comaneci, the first gymnast to ever score a perfect 10 and it details her incredible achievement and journey. Messi, Ronaldo and Becoming Zlatan is about three of the most gifted footballers of their generation – Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
One in a Billion is the journey of Satnam Singh, the first Indian player to be drafted into the NBA thereby inspiring Indians to believe that becoming a professional basketball player in the NBA is a real possibility.
Sport is about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and discovering the potential you have within you.
Sport is about both success and failures. It is about how justice and truth catch up to those that cheat. Sport is about unity and teamwork. Sport is about life. Some of the best movies of all time have been about sport and for good reason; because sport tells us the best stories.