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22 October 2018updated 13 Jul 2021 2:26pm

Why doesn’t the British film industry make sports films?

By Tom Beasley

In surprisingly rare news, there’s a new film coming out about football. Marcus H. Rosenmüller’s The Keeper dramatises the life of German goalkeeper Bert Trautmann – a Second World War POW who earned the respect of British crowds as one of the most beloved keepers in Manchester City history. Most famously, he broke his neck during the 1956 FA Cup final and went on to play the remaining 17 minutes of the match, despite the fact further damage could have been fatal.

Trautmann’s story is a remarkable one that definitely lends itself to the big screen, and The Keeper is an engaging and enjoyable film, even if it feels a little slight and weightless at times. Producer Chris Curling told the Guardian back in 2017 that the movie is more of a drama than a sports film, and that’s true. It’s a movie that features a lot of football sequences, but the dramatic crescendos and key moments tend to take place off the pitch.

It speaks to something unusual about British cinema in general: we don’t really do sports movies.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the sports film is a huge part of the cinematic landscape. Whether it’s the dozens of films made about baseball, the selection of American football pictures or even the rich heritage of the boxing story, American filmmakers and actors seem to see sport as something that is a key part of their movie output.

That’s not so in Britain. Despite the fact we’re undoubtedly a nation obsessed with sport – and particularly football – our cinema seldom reflects that. There have only been a handful of major movies focused around the game, with 2002 comedy Bend it Like Beckham and Bill Forsyth’s 1981 film Gregory’s Girl the most immediately notable examples – at least, if you discount the run of Noughties works about the hooliganism taking place on the terraces. Forsyth’s charming drama, in particular, fits into the same category as The Keeper in that it’s not really about the sport. It’s about what happens off the pitch.

Perhaps it comes from a certain British modesty. America is a country that has no issue with calling its national baseball competition the World Series, despite the fact no other country competes. Modern Britain is more modest, and so our sports movies reflect that. While Rocky features the titular fighter positioned as an explicitly patriotic figure – especially when it comes to the Cold War clash of Rocky IV – there’s little of that flag-waving in British sports films. It speaks volumes that we haven’t even made a major film about the 1966 World Cup win.

Boxing movies, in fact, prove to be a perfect illustration of the difference between sport-focused cinema on either side of the Atlantic. In Hollywood, the boxing movie is essentially a rite of passage for any upcoming filmmaker or actor, with the gold standards of Rocky and Raging Bull paving for the way for recent efforts like Bleed For This, starring Miles Teller, and Southpaw, in which Jake Gyllenhaal got seriously ripped, as well as Michael B. Jordan’s continuation of the Rocky franchise through the Creed films. These recent movies definitely have a formula, in which a young fighter must overcome underdog odds in the ring.

British boxing stories are also in something of a boom too, but the slant is very different. Jawbone, starring Johnny Harris, is as much about addiction as it is about fighting and focuses on unlicensed brawling more than the bright lights of televised prize-fighting. Meanwhile, Paddy Considine’s excellent Journeyman and last month’s The Fight – the directorial debut of comedy stalwart Jessica Hynes – exist almost entirely outside of the ring. The former follows the impact of a life-threatening brain injury on Considine’s champion boxer, while the latter is a story about bullying that uses Hynes’s character’s newfound desire to fight as a metaphor for her struggles in life. Noticeably, there’s very little in-ring glory, and not really a flag in sight.

The UK is a nation of sport lovers, for sure. But, as the particularly brilliant cricket movie sketch from the second series of That Mitchell and Webb Look illustrates, we often seem to find the straightforward, splashy underdog sports tale a bit ostentatious, obvious and vulgar. There are exceptions, of course. This year’s brilliant wrestling tale Fighting With My Family, for example, hews closely to the underdog template and is all the better for it.

In the main, though, sports movies on this side of the pond tend to be about something different – whether it’s the impact of disastrous injury on the life of a man defined by his sporting ability or the true tale of an unlikely German hero in the post-war years.

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