Sporting films are notoriously hit and miss. At their very best, they’re an intoxicating mix of gritty realism, detail and inspiration (I’m thinking Raging Bull and The Fighter); at their worst a schmaltzy sandwich of faux sentiment and improbable sporting endeavour (try cycling movie American Flyers for size). Running hasn’t exactly been blessed with a bumper crop of decent films, but there are a handful of running films that really stand out. Here’s our pick of the bunch.
1) The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
It’s a simple plot: bad boy comes good with long distance running. Tom Courtenay, playing Colin Smith, gives a compelling performance in this black and white classic from 1962, arguably the most poetic running film in cinematic history. After being sent to a reformatory for his part in a bakery robbery, Smith turns to long-distance running to escape the boredom of his confinement. His talent is spotted by the governor who offers the promise of early release if he runs for the reformatory in a race against a public school. Will Smith win the race to earn his freedom?
2) Chariots of Fire
Ask anybody to name one running film and this is probably the answer you’ll get. It might have been mercilessly lampooned but it’s still a British classic, featuring a priceless soundtrack from Vangelis and plenty of beach slow-mos that everyone will want to recreate. It tells the story of British Olympians Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams in the lead up to their respective triumphs at the 1924 Olympic Games. Everyone has their own favourite bit – ours is Nigel Havers as supposedly Lord Burghley practising the hurdles with glasses of champagne on them. Priceless.
3) Marathon Man
If you’re not a big fan of dentists, then it’s safe (or is it?) to say that you’ll probably never go again after watching this classic film, starring cinema heavyweights Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier. The ‘Is it safe?’ scene where a bewildered Hoffman is tortured by Olivier’s Nazi war criminal will have you wincing. Hoffman plays Columbia grad student and running obsessive Thomas “Babe” Levy, who is hounded by Laurence Olivier’s sinister Dr Christian Szell over a briefcase of missing diamonds. An early scene shows Hoffmann pushing himself around Central Park. Hoffman uses his memories of Ethiopian Abebe Bikila’s epic marathon wins at the Olympics to outlast his captors. Striking.
4) Forrest Gump
OK, so it’s not really a running movie (actually, neither is Marathon Man, but who’s counting) but Forrest Gump is the ultimate ultra distance runner. After being dumped by childhood sweetheart Jenny Curran (Robin Wright) Tom Hanks’s sweet-but-slightly confused Forrest Gump sets off on an epic run lasting three years, two months, 14 days, and 16 hours. Forrest finally stops running when, after covering 15,248 miles, he has managed to “put his past behind him”. It shows the possibilities of running and the effect it can have on the mind.
If you don’t know the story of American distance runner and all-round running inspiration, Steve Prefontaine, then this film by Steve ‘Hoop Dreams’ James will have you cheering from the sidelines. Prefontaine (played by now Oscar winner Jared Leto) divided opinion – some loved his gutsy front running tactics while others thought him cocky and opinionated. Of course, he was all these things – and more. ‘Pre’ as he was known died at the age of 25 in a car crash: this film manages to convey the brilliance of a man who never really got to fulfil his potential. Brilliant.
6) The Athlete
You have to be something of an aficionado to know (or even find) this film. It’s the story of marathon legend Abebe Bikila (who also gets screen time in Marathon Man). Part biopic, part autobiography and part documentary, it aims to create a portrait of the first African to win an Olympic gold medal. The film features epic runs through Bikila’s Ethiopian heartland and also juxtaposes his two Olympic triumphs with the terrible loss of his legs in a late-career car accident. Powerful stuff.