Sports Films and the Game of Life
Sport films are never about sports; they’re life lessons that take place before crowds of thousands adoring fans or in the recesses of old locker rooms where the athlete in question comes to terms with his purpose in life, reflected by his play on the field. Many of these movies revolve around such pivotal moments so it comes as no surprise that most scenes of this sort don’t concern themselves with a feat of athletic derring-do but a quiet moment in which the player in question finds the internal fortitude to go on.
The most powerful moment in Brian Helgeland’s 42, his fine bio-pic of Jackie Robinson, may not have happened exactly as it plays out on the screen, but it’s based on a factual conversation between Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers’ General Manager Branch Rickey. Having endured heaps of verbal abuse from the Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), the ballplayer reaches his breaking point, shattering a bat in the runway leading to the dugout and contemplating quitting the game. Rickey finds him in this state and reminds him of his purpose and what his presence in major league baseball means to the country as well as future African-American athletes. It’s boilerplate stuff as inspirational speeches are concerned, but when Rickey puts his arm around Robinson’s shoulder and he rests his head on his arm, this becomes a galvanizing moment, expertly played by Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford, that transcends the film and negates any objections we might have over its historical accuracy.
Great sports films are replete with such moments. What follows is a list of the best of such scenes, the ones that send a chill up your spine and remind us that positive qualities we see displayed on the playing field can be an example of how to live an exemplary life.
The Pride of the Yankees (1942) – Made as America was ramping up its war effort to oppose the Axis powers, Sam Wood’s fine biography of doomed New York Yankees slugger Lou Gehrig served as a grim omen of dark days ahead, as it showed us how to cope with the death of our country’s young men, something far too many families would have to contend with in the coming years. Though Gary Cooper had no experience playing baseball (Yankees’ catcher Bill Dickey, who served as a consultant on the film, said he looked like an old woman throwing a hot biscuit whenever he threw a baseball), he captured Gehrig the man perfectly, underscoring the first baseman’s modesty and courage to a tee. This all comes together in the final scene, where Cooper delivers Gehrig’s famous “Luckiest Man” speech, facing certain death with dignity and humility. Heartfelt and sincere, this is perhaps the most moving moment in any sports movie.
Rocky (1976) – Yes, this film has been parodied to death and of the five sequels, only three are worth watching but it should be remembered that, not for nothin’, this film did win the Oscar for Best Picture and for good reason. Sylvester Stallone’s script (yes, the big lug did write this) is sharp and poignant, never more so than when it’s concentrating on the budding love affair between Rocky and Adrian (Talia Shire). While the fighter knows he’s hopelessly overmatched by his opponent Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in the ring, he discovers something worth fighting for in his new girlfriend. A new sense of self-worth is felt by Rocky, compelling him to go the distance to prove that he is capable of anything, including Adrian’s love. Though he loses the climactic fight in the end, the moment when Rocky and Adrian meet in the ring and declare their devotion to one another prove they're both winners where the game of life is concerned.
Hoosiers (1986) – Often cited as the greatest sports film ever made, an assertion you’d be hard pressed to argue, this fact-based account of the Milan Indians, a small school that went on to win the Indiana State High School Basketball Championship in 1954 is a rousing, inspirational entertainment that powerfully drives home the point that hard work, loyalty and tenacity pay off in the end, whether it be on the hardwood or in life. This is never more evident than in a scene before the championship game in which Coach Dale (a never better Gene Hackman) thanks his players for all their hard work and tells them that he loves them. This is done quietly and with little fanfare, underscoring the sincerity of the moment and showing the unshakeable bond that’s developed in the players and their coach as they’ve endured a trial by fire that will give them confidence for the rest of their lives.
Any Given Sunday (1999) – To be sure, there are some problems with Oliver Stone’s look at the state of modern football (it’s too long, it attempts to cover too much ground, etc.) but overall the theme of the film – that pride in what a man is capable of has been undercut by the pursuit of wealth – comes through. This is never more obvious than during a scene in which Coach Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino, at his spastic best) gives an inspirational speech to his beleaguered team, referring to the pride and hard work past greats of the game have displayed. He states that both life and football is a game of inches and that the only way to win at either is to fight and scratch for that one extra inch that will make the difference between winning and losing, between life and death. Stone effectively intercuts stock footage of the football greats that exemplify this notion and they perfectly complement the speech which suggests that inner pride should be the players’ motivation, not financial gain. (Note: excerpts from this speech can be heard in commercials for the Jeep Corporation that are currently being aired.)
Remember the Titans (2000) – Yeah, it’s all a bit hokey and there’s more fiction than fact in this manipulative exercise, but one of the few moments that rings true is when Coach Boone (Denzel Washington) takes his racially divided high school football team on a midnight run through Chickamauga National Park to visit the site of the tumultuous Civil War battle. Reminding them of the sacrifices made so that they could live in an integrated America, he plants the seed in his players that they should strive to realize this dream both on and off the field. The most sincere moment in a by-the-numbers sports film, this is a scene that proves that what happens on the field of play can serve as a template for how we live our lives.