10 great British sports films

With Paddy Considine’s bruising boxing drama Journeyman due in cinemas, we go 10 rounds with the great British sports film.

Brogan Morris

Journeyman (2017)

Journeyman (2017)

In Paddy Considine’s new film as writer-director, Journeyman, Considine himself stars as Matty Burton, a middleweight boxing champ attempting to piece his life back together after suffering a terrible brain injury. While notable as much for its psychological portrayal as its in-the-ring drama, as a gritty tale of one man’s determination to triumph over adversity it belongs squarely in the tradition of the great sports movie – a genre that’s had its fair share of victories on British soil.

More privileged subjects have had their time in the spotlight, as in Chariots of Fire (1981) or Oxford-Cambridge boat race biopic True Blue (1996), but the stars of British sports movies have – like Journeyman’s Matty – tended to be blue-collar, hardscrabble underdogs.

They have been determined dreamers (Eddie the Eagle, 2016), innovators from unremarkable backgrounds (The Flying Scotsman, 2006), no-hopers (Twenty Four Seven, 1997) and amateurs angling for a shot at the big time (Bend it Like Beckham, 2002). They have been society’s leftovers, using sport to escape the mundanity of their lives (Looking for Eric, 2009). They have also been, in the case of John Huston’s Second World War favourite Escape to Victory (1981), prisoners of war playing football alongside Sly Stallone and Pelé to defeat the Nazis.

To celebrate the release of Journeyman in cinemas, get in the ring with these all-time champs of the genre.

The Ring (1927)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

The Ring (1927)

Inspired by the London boxing matches he attended at the time, Alfred Hitchcock wrote his one and only original screenplay for The Ring, the second of three features that he had on release in 1927. Hitch’s story centres on up-and-coming heavyweight ‘One-Round’ Jack Sander (Carl Brisson, formerly a prizefighter in his native Denmark) and his opponent both inside and outside the ring, world heavyweight champion Bob Corby (Ian Hunter), who wants not just to defeat the challenger but to win over his new bride (Lillian Hall-Davis).

Made when he was still experimenting with the medium he would come to master and mould, Hitchcock’s fourth features tricks that he would deploy again in more renowned movies, while the design of the film’s climactic boxing match alone has echoed through sports movie history. The camera slowly tracking in on fighters preparing to pounce, cigarette smoke permeating the ring like a mist, the claustrophobic close-up of a face being pummelled – Martin Scorsese’s own boxing classic Raging Bull would use it all some 53 years later.

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939)

Director Thorold Dickinson

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery (1939)

With the exception of Ken Loach, who made a swampy comprehensive school kickabout into a humorously ironic showdown between bored pupils and their vainglorious teacher in Kes (1969), filmmakers have struggled to make the beautiful game all that easy on the eye. A cheerful mystery-thriller, starring Leslie Banks as a theatrical detective investigating the murder of an amateur footballer during his team’s friendly with league winners Arsenal, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery opens and closes with possibly the other finest depiction of football in all of cinema. Seamlessly combining footage, of a mock-up match and the final game the real Arsenal played (against Brentford) at Highbury before the outbreak of the Second World War, director Thorold Dickinson crafts an elegant, and crucially cinematic, game of top flight pre-war English footy. Dickinson fan Martin Scorsese, no lover of sports, called these scenes “exhilarating”.

The Final Test (1953)

Director Anthony Asquith

The Final Test (1953)

Cricket drama The Final Test ends with an ageing sportsman’s bittersweet victory lap but opens with a joke, about the most British of sports’ inscrutability to outsiders. A visiting American senator (Stanley Maxted), who at first seems present in the film to act as a ‘way in’ for international viewers, is given a crash course on the rules and terminology of the sport by a fellow Test match spectator, before exiting the film little more illuminated than before.

The focus then shifts to Sam Palmer (Jack Warner), a legendary cricketer playing his last international game and reckoning with his legacy, after his son Reggie (Ray Jackson) questions the value of a sport whose appeal he finds mystifying. “Of course it’s frightfully dull,” exclaims Reggie’s poet-mentor (Robert Morley) on behalf of the film’s screenwriter and cricket enthusiast Terence Rattigan. “The measure of the vast superiority of cricket over any other game is that it steadfastly refuses to cater to the boorish craving for excitement.”

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

Director Tony Richardson

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

With sport so central to Brit working-class life, it was fitting that the kitchen-sink British New Wave movement would go on to explore that relationship in a couple of its most essential works. The first of these, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, adapted for the screen by Alan Sillitoe from his own short story, would present sport not just as a pastime but as a way for a Nottingham teenager to escape his personal troubles, however briefly.

Archetypal angry young man Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), a petty thief who during a stretch in borstal shows a talent for cross-country, doesn’t run solely to court favour with the governor (Michael Redgrave), who fancies Smith as a future star athlete and an endorsement of his school’s approach to rehabilitation. Smith also runs to acquire the void, to achieve that momentary respite from pondering his troubled past, uncertain future and the flattening reality of his present.

This Sporting Life (1963)

Director Lindsay Anderson

This Sporting Life (1963)

If The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is about a recalcitrant teen using sport to escape from himself, then Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life is about an ordinary working lad using the opportunities professional sport can afford to escape the bleak reality of working life in 1960s Britain. Swaggering his way out of Wakefield’s mines, cruel, combustible hulk of a man Frank Machin (Richard Harris) embarks on a career in rugby league, where glamour and riches he never imagined for himself await.

Though it features scenes of rugger directed with astonishing confidence by first-time feature filmmaker Anderson, who makes the game appear both savage and graceful, This Sporting Life is first and foremost a ruthless character study set largely off field, one so uncommercial it helped kill British studios’ appetite for the social realist New Wave for good. Frank’s relationship with Rachel Roberts’ widow is the stuff of domestic nightmares, while Anderson dwells in horror on the disfiguring sports injuries inflicted on Harris’s northern Adonis, highlighting the brutal trade-off some athletes accept in order to play their game.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Director Hugh Hudson

Chariots of Fire (1981)

From its oft-parodied opening sequence, which finds British sprinters racing across a beach to a triumphant Vangelis theme, Chariots of Fire extols the symbolic power of competitive sport. To devout Scottish missionary Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) and Jewish Oxbridge graduate Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), prize runners for team Blighty at the 1924 Olympics, victory means two different things. For Liddell, sporting glory means glory to a God who bestowed on him an awesome gift, whereas for Abrahams, his success on a world stage would mean combating prejudice, on behalf of himself and the “half-Italian, half-Arab” trainer (Ian Holm) who added crucial yards to his dash.

Sport’s potential to unify, to rally people of disparate backgrounds behind a flag – here, one flag in particular – is Chariots of Fire’s focus. The film is an unapologetic celebration of Great Britain, of the will of its people, its institutions and, in cinematographer David Watkin’s sumptuous scenery, the very landscape that the country’s athletes are shaped by.

Playing Away (1987)

Director Horace Ové

Playing Away (1986)

Pitting an all-black south London side of West Indian heritage against an all-white team from rural ‘Sneddington’, Horace Ové’s comedy-drama Playing Away uses a cricket friendly to outline the stark racial divide that existed in late-1980s Britain. In Brixton and his fictional idyllic English village, Trinidad-born Ové presents two distinct countries, one of run-down nightclubs and everyday urban grind, the other of polite local pubs and pretty village greens. When the ‘Brixton Conquistadors’ led by often incredulous captain Willie Boy (Norman Beaton) meet the opposition in Sneddington, attempts by both sides to bridge the cultural gap results variously in animosity, confusion and merrymaking.

Ové resists the urge to make his a ‘message’ film, about two different groups making great social strides in the space of one cricket match, but – over the course of 100 minutes – he does allow his characters to learn the simple, vital truth that preconceived notions of ‘the other’ never prove correct.

The Damned United (2009)

Director Tom Hooper

The Damned United (2009)

In Brian Clough’s brief, infamous 1974 stewardship of Leeds United, playwright Peter Morgan finds a fascinating struggle taking place entirely off the field. Consumed by bitterness and hubris, Morgan’s Clough (Michael Sheen) has many rivals – ex-Leeds boss Don Revie (Colm Meaney), any club directors who attempt to rein the increasingly cocky Clough in – but the greatest threat to Ol’ Big Head’s success is his capacity for self-sabotage.

Fresh off portrayals of Kenneth Williams, Tony Blair and David Frost, in The Damned United Michael Sheen plays another famous Brit in the midst of professional struggle. As Clough implodes during his 44-day stint managing a club he detests, Sheen captures all the adolescent petulance, arrogance and spitefulness of a man whose panto villainy was in part a mask for his own deep insecurity.

Rush (2013)

Director Ron Howard

Rush (2013)

Another Peter Morgan film about a 1970s sporting rivalry, Formula One drama Rush contrasts easygoing, playboy Brit racer James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) with hard-working Austrian driver Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) to ask whether sporting ability is born or made. For racing sequences set at a time when F1 carried a real risk of fatality, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle brings an effectively impressionistic sense of peril, but Morgan – who conceived of the film as a low-budget ‘race’ to professional success by his two lead characters, without actual racing – locates the real urgency in the off-track dialogue between Hunt and Lauda.

Making for a tetchy double act, Hemsworth and Brühl sell Rush almost as an odd-couple comedy about two diametric opposites, whose morbid shared obsession eventually leads to their becoming great friends. Brühl in particular impresses, playing someone who was never eager to please minus any bids for likeability.

Jawbone (2017)

Director Thomas Napper

Jawbone (2017)

Drawing from his own history of homelessness and alcoholism, Jawbone writer-producer-star Johnny Harris invests his small-time boxing drama with an at-times crushing honesty. Battling an addiction to the bottle and sleeping rough after being turfed out of his flat, once-promising fighter Jimmy McCabe (Harris) takes the money for a risky unlicensed spar in the hope it’ll help get his life back on track.

What clichés there are in Jawbone’s underdog comeback narrative are offset by the primality of both Harris’ performance and his script. His Jimmy McCabe, defeated and tormented by something unknown, has reduced himself to a solitary creature living purely for survival. Jimmy’s home is London, but he exists on its fringes; director Thomas Napper cloaks his protagonist in the colour of shadow and light pollution, and the sky-high, picture-postcard parts of the capital can only ever be glimpsed at the edges of the frame, as if an unreachable dream.

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