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Aug 08, 2008

As far back as the 1930s, filmmakers have been inspired by the high-stakes drama of the Olympics. From controversial documentaries to fictitious comedies, these five double features capture the glory and tragedy of the world’s most highly regarded competition.

By FLYP Staff

racism and races
Olympia (1938) & Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937)
In this pairing, the 1936 Olympics in Berlin comes alive in two racially charged films.
The first documentary ever to cover the Olympics came from infamous propagandist and auteur Leni Riefenstahl. The games that year were dominated by the grandiose presence of Adolf Hitler, and many argue Olympia should be classified as a Nazi propaganda film along with Riefenstahl’s prior project, the notorious Triumph of the Will.
Riefenstahl’s attention to Jesse Owens’s monumental Aryan-supremacy-defying victory—and the expression on Hitler’s face when he won—is evidence that Olympia is a complex portrait of what in Nazi hands became a political event masquerading as sport.
Likewise, the Charlie Chan franchise of books, comics and films still resists easy categorization. Some feel the character is heavily stereotyped and object to the “yellow-face” lead actor; others feel, as the first Asian hero, he is an important addition to Western pop-culture.
At the Olympics, Chan prevents the Nazis from obtaining top-secret technology by teaming up with his son, Lee, a U.S. Olympic swimmer. The suspense and intrigue make this film quite a gem.

iconic drama
Chariots of Fire (1981) & The Jericho Mile (1979)
With most Olympic movies, you can count on high drama, moving soundtracks and scenes of athletes pushing their limits.
Perhaps the most beloved true-life adaptation about sports to date, Chariots of Fire was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four, including best picture. The film follows two British runners—one Jewish and one Protestant—as they train and compete in the 1924 Olympics in Paris while battling religious prejudice.
The famous soundtrack and iconic scene of runners training on the beach have become indelibly tied to the challenges and triumphs of sport. The film encapsulates the pain, stress and joy of victory, as summed up in this quote from the devout Protestant: “I believe that God made me for a purpose…but He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
Similarly, Michael Mann’s 1979 made-for-TV movie, The Jericho Mile, employs a sense of gritty realism that makes it seem like a true story.
The film centers on Larry “Rain” Murphy, a man sentenced to life in prison. He passes his time by running, eventually gaining the attention of the prison guards and a chance to compete at the Olympics.
Shot primarily at Folsom Prison, Mann uses actual prisoners as secondary actors. The film went on to win three Emmys and a Director’s Guild Award.

true visions
Tokyo Olympiad (1965) & Visions of Eight (1973)
A milestone in documentary filmmaking, Kon Ichikawa’s Tokyo Olympiad centers on the 1964 Olympics in Japan. By focusing on the general atmosphere of the games rather than the winners and losers, Ichikawa creates a modern, cinematic vision of sports that is still referenced as an source of inspiration by today’s filmmakers.
Though the films expressive qualities got the Ichikawa into some hot water with the Japanese government and his financiers, who wanted a more journalistic recording of the events, it is now regarded as one of the best movies ever made about the Olympics.
Ichikawa reprised his poetic vision of sports in 1973 with his participation in Visions of Eight, a unique documentary that merged eight independently produced shorts by the world’s most renowned directors. Juri Ozerov, Mai Zetterling, Arthur Penn, Michael Pfleghar, Kon Ichikawa, Claude Lelouch, Milos Forman and John Schlesinger were all given their own budget and complete freedom, resulting in a hallucinatory mash-up of sights, sounds and emotions.
Perhaps most notable are Schlesinger’s piece about the marathon and Lelouch’s moving short about losers. It’s an important piece of lost cinema worth visiting, especially for the great score by 
Henry Mancini.

funny sports
Walk, Don’t Run (1966) & It Happened in Athens (1962)
A fictional account of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Walk, Don’t Run is a remake of the 1943 picture The More the Merrier.
It stars an aging Carey Grant in his last feature film role, playing a British businessman who becomes an accidental matchmaker to a young secretary and a member of the U.S. Olympic walking team. Comedic complications and romantic entanglements set amidst the excitement of the Olympics help create a memorable farewell vehicle for the ever-charming Grant.
Need more hilarious hijinks and amorous athletes? It Happened in Athens is filled with a complicated web of misplaced affections and questionable motives surrounding the running of the marathon at the 1896 Olympics.
Steamy siren Jayne Mansfield stars as an actress who agrees to marry whoever wins the event, firmly believing that her sweetheart will prevail. Things get complicated, of course, when a poor shepherd wins the 26.2-mile race.

war games
Munich (2005) & One Day in September (2000)
Stephen Spielberg’s Munich is a passionate and rather bizarre look at the dark and morally ambiguous task of bringing to justice the Palestinian terrorists who murderers 11 Israeli athletes.
Although it received mixed reviews from critics after its theatrical release, for many, Munich is a courageous and creative telling of an important story, one that captures the spirit of the 1972 tragedy and aligns itself somewhere between the two sides. As one of his characters concludes, “there is no peace at the end of this.”
To get to the “truth” of the tragic murders, watch One Day in September, a somewhat controversial yet highly acclaimed documentary.
Film critic Roger Ebert, though noting the importance of the film’s subject, openly criticized the film as sensational and one-sided. Nevertheless, it earned an Academy Award for best documentary, and features an interview with the only surviving Palestinian terrorist.

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