Gilbey on Film: 10 unorthodox sports movies

An antidote to Olympic fever.

This week brings two films which remind us that sports movies are never really about sport. Salute focuses on the Black Power salute given on the winners’ podium at the 1968 Olympics by the athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, but it also unpicks the complicity of their fellow medal-winner, the white Australian Peter Norman, in the act. Race, class, prejudice and privilege in a different context are also touched on in Chariots of Fire, the Oscar-winning story of Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, who competed at the 1924 Olympics; the picture returns to cinemas now, 31 years after its original release. Here are some thoughts on it from Lindsay Anderson, who has a few succulent moments on screen opposite John Gielgud. In a letter to Malcolm McDowell in April 1981, Anderson wrote of the film’s premiere:

I’ve no idea what I’m like in the picture. When my first sequence arrived, I closed my eyes. Later I peeked through half-closed lids. All I can say is, I didn’t seem to be much worse than Gielgud. (I don’t know what he thought. He dashed for the exit at the end of the picture, having told us…that he had booked a bacon-and-egg supper for himself at the Garrick.) The picture itself is lush, over-photographed for my taste - [the cinematographer] David Watkin in his usual pictorial form – and directed with that concentration on image that is the mark of directors who’ve been formed in directing commercials. Hugh [Hudson, the director] is a really nice chap: but not much sense of narrative or performance.

I wonder what Anderson would have made of the ten films I offer up for your consideration in the category of The Unorthodox Sports Movie. Consider the list a slight antidote to Olympic fever, reining in the hyperbole without swearing off sporting activity entirely. Sports movie convention, you see, demands traditionally that nothing less than the future of civilisation must appear to hinge on the outcome of the competition in the final reel. Whether it’s a horse race in Seabiscuit, a boxing match in Rocky or a martial arts contest in The Karate Kid, the entire world should be seen to be punching the air and weeping tears of unadulterated joy. The films below offer a slight corrective to that bombast.

Hoop Dreams

Hardly obscure, this painstaking (and often painful) documentary following two young African-American basketball hopefuls remains one of the greatest documentaries of all time. In this clip, the Tigger-like Arthur Agee visits St Joseph school after being spotted by a talent scout, and ponders an education alongside “different kids, different races.”

Ping Pong

A brilliantly lively Japanese comic-book adaptation with a blissfully batty visual style.

All the Marbles  (also known as The California Dolls)

Peter Falk as a female wrestling manager (he’s not female: the wrestlers are).

Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire

Alan Clarke’s snooker-vampire-musical. Only in 1980s Britain, eh? Here  is Alun Armstrong, as a Ray Reardon-a-like, performing his big number “I Bite Back” (“I may appear bizarre/ With my predatory features …”) And here is some snooker action with Phil Daniels.

Rudo y Cursi

A witty, overlooked (though not by your trusty NS) soccer comedy starring cinema’s conjoined Mexicans, Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna.

Rollerball

AKA Whip It! for men.

Animalympics

Sassy and soppy in equal measures, this 1980 animated comedy imagines an Olympic Games populated by animals. Here is a scene set to one of Graham (10CC) Gouldman’s songs from the film. You think it’s corny? By the time you’ve endured UK television’s Olympic montages accompanied by Coldplay or Take That, Gouldman’s songs will resemble the Dead Kennedys.

Diggstown (released in the UK as Midnight Sting)

Yes, it’s boxing. But it makes Rocky look like a game of pat-a-cake. 

Breaking Away

A funny, acutely-observed coming-of-age film … on bikes. And here is one of its stars, Daniel Stern, talking now about the movie’s appeal.

The King of Kong

I hear there is a fictional version of this battle-of-the-arcade-champions documentary in the works. Please, let it not be so: this incarnation of the story is note-perfect. And don’t listen to those who tell you that Donkey Kong isn’t a sport: they’ll be saying next that Temple Run doesn’t count as exercise.

"Chariots of Fire" and "Salute" are released 13 July

A still from the 2002 remake of Rollerball (Photograph: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.