I find most films nowadays as fascinating as a lengthy history of orthodontics, but then I’m spoiled rotten having watched old black-and-white pearls such as From Here to Eternity, The Asphalt Jungle, and Our Man Godfrey. When Chariots of Fire came out some forty years ago I went bananas. My uncle had competed in both the ’32 and ’36 Olympics in the hurdles, and my father was on the relay team. Athletics back then were for pure amateurs only, and as in the case of the great Jim Thorpe, anyone caught having ever been paid even a dollar for competing in any sport in or out of the Olympics was obliged to give the medal back. Chariots of Fire captured the will, luminosity, and purity of the amateur athlete who competes honorably for glory and would rather die than cheat. Which brings me to the latest film my friend Michael Mailer has directed, and whose premiere I attended last week in the Bagel.
In brief, it’s Chariots of Fire on water. Heart of Champions was inspired by a true-life story that took place back in 1936. Nine working-class boys in America’s Northwest decided to challenge the upper-class crews that made up the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton crew teams, which were competing to represent Uncle Sam at the Berlin 1936 Olympics. To everyone’s amazement they ended up winning, going to Berlin, and winning again, beating Italy and Germany in the final. Apparently even the Führer was impressed when told of their background. There have been books (Boys in the Boat) and documentaries about it.
Michael’s movie has nothing to do with that event, and is set in 1999 at a fictional university battling against Harvard and other grand schools. The star is that wonderful actor Michael Shannon, who gives a great performance as a Vietnam-veteran coach who reads his boys better than any Freud ever could and then some. Michael unfolds the mystery of certain characters over the course of the movie. One can no longer do that in the era of social media as it takes a few minutes online to reveal pretty much anything one needs to know about anyone. Social media is antithetical to mystery, according to Michael, and by extension antithetical to art or the creation of art.
Here’s the director talking to me about the film: “The values espoused in the movie—sacrifice, team above self, sublimation of ego, and leadership—meant more then than they do now.” Michael also wanted to tell a story during a time when it was okay to get into a fistfight over a girl and not have it labeled a toxic-masculinity event. Here I take a parenthesis. Last week in London I had drinks with heroes at an undisclosed location. I am not being mysterious but following their rules. Perhaps a few readers will know what I mean. I am not being coy, just proud of having met with the best Britain can ever provide. Now back to the film.