The Olympics aren’t just about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. They’re also about romance, redemption, politics — even pratfalls. Nothing is as dramatic as watching the games live, but these 10 video titles could be the next best thing.
Chariots of Fire (1981, Warner, PG) This Best Picture Oscar winner achieves a lyrical grace in its portrait of Brits running to glory in the 1924 Games. But the real stuff of the story is not how they run but why. Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), a Jew, is running against anti-Semitism. Scottish missionary Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) is running for God. That their very personal triumphs inspired such patriotic pride is the exquisite irony of this crowd-pleaser.
International Velvet (1978, MGM/UA, PG) In this belated sequel to 1944’s National Velvet, Tatum O’Neal rides her gorgeous horse to Olympic victory. Director Bryan Forbes clearly knows something about horses and races: The climactic ride is such a thrill, even the dressage is dramatic.
The Jericho Mile (1979, New Line, unrated) Most Olympic-themed TV movies concern inspiring, real-life legends (like The Jesse Owens Story). But this early effort by Michael Mann deals with a different kind of hero: a murderer (Peter Strauss) who trains at Folsom Prison, hoping for redemption as an Olympic runner. This character doesn’t go out of his way to be endearing. Maybe that’s why we root for him.
Jim Thorpe: All American (1951, Warner, unrated) A strapping Burt Lancaster portrays Thorpe, who reached a personal pinnacle at the 1912 Olympics — only to be stripped of his medals because he once played semipro baseball. The subsequent downhill slide might be predictable, but the bittersweet coda isn’t.
Olympia, Parts I and II (1938, Columbia TriStar, unrated) Leni Riefenstahl’s record of the 1936 Berlin Games is one of the greatest documentaries ever made. Shooting from seemingly impossible angles, she creates a stunning visual essay in which the balletic motion of youthful bodies matters more than medals.
The Olympiad’s Greatest Moments (1996, DreamWorks SKG Television, 1-800-344-1309, unrated) Emmy award-winning filmmaker Bud Greenspan has assembled 14 hours of footage — not just the highlights but also the human dramas behind them. Programs such as The Marathon and The Soviet Athlete, and The Fastest Men in the World, deliver much more than their titles promise.
Personal Best (1982, Warner, R) All glistening sweat and sinewy limbs, the female athletes training for the 1976 and ‘80 Games in this romantic drama set a new standard for sports-movie verite. Even when they fall in love with each other, it seems perfectly natural. Writer-director Robert Towne beautifully captures the muscles in motion, and the emotions in flux.
Tokyo Olympiad (1966, Home Vision, unrated) Documentarian Kon Ichikawa evokes the 1964 Games with a host of unexpected images, from the blur of bicycles as they whoosh past a cheering crowd to the freeze-frame of sprinters at the finish line — an almost abstract portrait of flying arms and legs.
Walk, Don’t Run (1966, Columbia TriStar, unrated) When the Olympics are in town, good luck finding a hotel room. That’s the idea behind this low-key romantic comedy, in which British businessman Cary Grant and American athlete Jim Hutton crash at the pad of prim Samantha Eggar. The action eventually gets around to the racewalking finals, featuring Grant as an unofficial entrant — clad in his underwear!
You’re the Greatest, Charlie Brown (1979, Paramount, unrated) When hapless Charlie Brown competes in the kiddie decathlon, he gets a lesson in losing from (among others) Snoopy. The truism ”Winning isn’t everything” has rarely seemed more cheerfully true.