Movies that motivate: The greatest sporting films of all time

Escape to Victory (1981)

Escape to Victory (1981)

Tears, cheers and jeers – the cinematic path of a sports movie can be full of wild variables and vastly different emotions.

While some are good and a few are great, most, sadly, are well, just plain…crap!

There’s a litany of failed products – mostly American baseball, football or basketball-based to be honest – and only a bare few little gems that have kept things interesting enough for us sports nuts to bounce back time and again.

Mostly, we feel underwhelmed, smashed down by the failure of a poor (typically monotonous and all-too familiar) storyline involving sportspeople who fail, fail again, and then ultimately survive to win the day – often to a sickening bevy of hi-fives, chest-slaps, and a menu of macho rubbish.

What’s interesting though, is how many genuine stars of the big-screen have taken that well-trodden and notoriously risky path of starring in a sports film. Think Robert Redford, Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, Jeff Bridges, Sly Stallone (ah-hem) – even a few celebrity players like Madonna who’ve smashed out a cameo here and there. And they’ve produced a few stars also. Where would Ralph Macchio be without Danny LaRusso – aka The Karate Kid?….although we won’t even mention the sequel – The Next Karate Kid. Then again, maybe we will next time when I name the worst five sports movies of all time…

So here they are. The five best sporting films of all time.

 

Escape to Victory (1981): known simply as Victory in North America

Michael Caine, Sly Stallone, even Brazilian champ Pele and UK superstar Bobby Moore appear in this, the greatest of all sports movies. It’s set in a German prison camp during WWII and was inspired by the true story of the so-called Death Match in which FC DYNAMO Kyiv defeated German soldiers while Ukraine was occupied by German troops (the Ukrainians, by the way, were all shot as a result of winning). Basically, Michael Caine is coach, Sly is the yankie wild-child (what else?) and they put together a group of misfits who just happen to be so good, that when the time comes… well, you should see for yourself. Full of great moments, like when the crowd erupts in support of the POWs “Victoire, Victoire” (don’t you just love a crowd seen in a sports movie) and storm the field. But best moment of all comes at half-time, when the players need to choose between joining the French Resistance by escaping through the tunnels at the back of the players sheds or finishing the game. Stimulating stuff. Caine is great, Sly is awful – clearly as good a footballer as an actor, and some of Pele’s tricks…are well, Pele-like. This is a must-watch.

Like anything, everyone’s got their own favorite – but that being said, if you’ve done a list and Escape to Victory isn’t in the top two, well you’re kidding yourself – or, you’re a round-ball virgin – meaning soccer just ain’t your thing!

 

Hoosiers (1986)

Ooh yeah baby (sorry I slipped into American sports jingo for a mere second)…this is easily the best basketball film ever made. Hackman is a coach with a checkered past (I know, I know, but stick with me), who joins Dennis Hopper (a local drunk) to take a small town to the top of the tree in US high school basketball. A couple of moments are sheer sports-movie gold, like when Hackman gets one of the boys to measure the size of a basketball ring before a game at the huge stadium of an opposing team. How big is it? The same height/size as every other basketball ring in the world, including the run-down stadium in their shed back home. The message is losers can become winners. Small town can beat big town. Get it out on video (do they still make them ed?), grab a southern bourbon (not sure why) and empty out the tissue box – this is a tear-jerker. Surely.

 

The Natural (1984)

Directed by Barry Levinson, and starring Robert Redford, Glenn Close and Robert Duvall. Enough said….well nearly.  Redford is awesome, can pitch a wild left-hander and has a bat named wonder-boy carved from the tree that killed his old man. I won’t try to explain the whole story because for a sports film, it’s unusually complex, in a …simple kind of way. Rest assured, Kim Basinger is as stunning as ever. ESPN rate it as the sixth best sports film of all time…they’re wrong. It’s  the third best.

 

Seabiscuit (2003 – finally out of the 80s!)

This is the true-story (ain’t they all!) of a racehorse that lifted the spirit of a nation – in this case the US, during the Depression era. The Garry Ross screenplay is well, friggin awesome, especially for a lover of the track. The effect of the horses smashing down the dirt track are surprisingly cool and Tobey Maguire (SeBiscuit’s jockey), Jeff Bridges (trainer) and Elizabeth Banks (the unlikely owner) complete a solid cast. It’s about a down and out horse, as opposed to a person this time, who comes back from a frighteningly bad record to establish a connection with his trainer, owner and jockey (smart horse that) and win anything and everything they put in front of him – capturing the attention of the nation along the way. Many of whom throw their last few bucks on him for victory, and during the Depression, that mattered!

 

Rocky 1-3 (started in 1976 and went for ..well, forever really)

Okay, this goes against the grain and may upset a few, but to hell with it, I’m packaging the first few Rocky movies up (1-3 to be precise). In fact the original Rocky on its own is probably the best sports movie of all-time (it did win three Oscars!). And despite being widely condemned, the second one isn’t bad either. But the truth is, I’ve watched Rocky 3 more times than any of the others. There’s something about that moment when the old trainer, Micky, dies (tears) and then Apollo, Rocky’s great rival, takes the reins (tears again), that, well, just pumps me up. That and the infamous sand-speech to wife Adrian “for the first time in my life, I’m afraid”. See, tough men, do have feelings. The music is inspirational – yep, I said it. The training scenes make me want to break into a fast walk, and the victories are great moments in time. You will notice I haven’t mentioned the others – (4 to whenever) ..well, they will appear soon in the worst sports movies of all time!

 

Honourable mentions

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Karate Kid (1984)

Happy Gilmore (1996)

Caddyshack (1980)

 

About the Author

Drinker, thinker (kind of) and writer (rarely), Redmond Herring has twelve sisters and a brother. He was abandoned by his pet dog at birth, and was subsequently raised by his twelve sisters after his brother escaped the family during a visit to the local mall. He was last seen eating fried pork dumplings in the Chinese section of the food hall. Since then, Redmond has mastered the art of seven languages but is still working on english. He is a strong advocate of the feminist movement, loves sports, gangster movies and is a self-confessed carnivore.

20 thoughts on “Movies that motivate: The greatest sporting films of all time

  1. Bill, you’re all right…Chariots of Fire has the greatest theme song of a sports movie ever…soundtrak from the start of the film, shot on St Andrews beach…awe-inspiring stuff

    • A few people have mentioned this one – definitely an amazing movie. Although, I wonder if a film like that is more of a character study based around a sports person than it is a sport film per say. Interested to hear the allusive Redmond Herring’s thoughts on this…

  2. I hate sports movies (usually), but as I often find myself in a situation where people insist! on watching them, this list is useful to have around. I saw Seabiscuit and liked it well enough (though funnily enough I didn’t think of it as a sports movie), so I’m intrigued to try Escape to Victory based on your recommendation. & I have a nomination for your worst sports movies list: Abel’s Field.

      • Drinker, thinker (kind of) and writer (rarely), Redmond Herring has twelve sisters and a brother. He was abandoned by his pet dog at birth, and was subsequently raised by his twelve sisters after his brother escaped the family during a visit to the local mall. He was last seen eating fried pork dumplings in the Chinese section of the food hall. Since then, Redmond has mastered the art of seven languages but is still working on english. He is a strong advocate of the feminist movement, loves sports, gangster movies and is a self-confessed carnivore.
        Come on James, put them out of their misery!

  3. I’ll throw in my two cents worth for “The Miracle Match” about the U.S.’s improbable 1-0 win over England in the 1950 World Cup. Since only one American reporter even showed up for the match at the time, it was a story largely untold until the film.

    • More: Body and Soul, Cockfighter, Chariots of fire, On the Waterfront, All the marbles, Somebody Up There Likes me, Personal Best, Bad Lieutenant, Old Man and the Sea, Knute Rockne All American, North Dallas forty, Semi-Tough,It Happens Every Spring, Damn yankees. Here comesmr. Jordon,Golden Boy,Riding giants, The EndlessSummer

  4. I am no sports fan, but here are some great pictures that just happen to be about sports, and this list is just the beginning: Fear Strikes Out, The Pride of the Yankees, , Paradise Alley, Hoop Dreams, The Wrestler , The Fighter,Gentleman Jim, He Got Game, Angels in the Outfield, Requiem for a heavyweight, The Set-Up, The Histler, The Longest yard, Tokyo Olympiad, Olympia, Fatcity, The Great white Hope, The Quiet Man, The Boxer.

  5. When I saw the inclusion of ‘Escape to Victory’, I thought this was going to be a tongue in cheek list, but it appears that it was not. OK, everyone has a right to their opinions, and favourites, and ‘The Natural’ is an excellent film, so I will say ‘good article’ and add no more.
    However…
    Can I respectfully suggest that you watch some of these, if you get the chance.
    ‘Raging Bull’ , (1980) starring Robert De Niro, directed by Martin Scorsese. ‘Champion’ (1949) starring Kirk Douglas, ‘Field of Dreams’ (1989) starring Kevin Costner and Ray Liotta, ‘The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner (1982) starring Tom Courtenay, ‘Cobb’ (1994) starring Tommy Lee Jones, ‘This Sporting Life (1963) starring Richard Harris.

    Thanks for the contribution, and best wishes from England. Pete.

  6. A great list, but I must come to the defence of the sixth entry in the Rocky series, ‘Rocky Balboa’. It is by the far the best of the series – nostalgia, loss, and bravery in the face of inevitable decline.

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