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Great running movies to inspire feats (and feet) of glory

Posted by on 16/11/2018

Full tilt: Ben Cross and Nigel Havers compete to get around the main court at Trinity College, Cambridge, in less time than it takes the clock to strike 12 in Chariots of Fire. Flying: Mel Gibson and Mark Lee in a scene from Gallipoli.
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If watching running movies could make you run, I’d be faster than a leopard. Alas, I am not, although I did win a 1500-metre race on the SCG when I was a schoolboy. Only my sister and I remember it, but oh, the glory!

I was born into a running family, which has its obligations. My father was a semi-finalist in the Stawell Gift in the 1930s and my brother was indeed as fast as that leopard. I followed him to a boarding school where he held every speed record in every age group, from 12 to 18 years. Bastard! I became a distance runner by necessity. If you can’t run fast, run long. Maybe that’s why I like movies about running. One can dream. The Sun-Herald. Two weeks later, Melbourne offers the City2Sea, sponsored by The Sunday Age. All over the country, men and women, boys and girls have been up early and out late, training, stretching, playing with their watches, trying on shoes, fretting about socks. All will be trying to see how good they can be. A few will be wondering if watching Gallipoli (1981) again might make them go faster.

“What are your legs?” asked the recently late Bill Kerr, as the grizzled bush trainer.

“Steel springs,” answered Mark Lee, as his star runner.

“How fast are you going to run?” asked the old man.

“As fast as a leopard,” answered the boy.Chariots of Fire (also 1981), which connects religion and running in a story that questions that idea of innocence. It’s partly a film about what we lost in that war.Endurance (1999), a hybrid documentary/feature by Leslie Woodhead. The film begins and ends with HG’s astonishing gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in the 10,000 metres. In between, it gives us his childhood in Ethiopia, using actors and a beautiful poetic style, with minimal dialogue. Just watching the adult Gebrselassie run through the bush is mesmerising, so metronomic is his style.

The running movie is often a clash of old and new – usually in the form of wise and wizened coach versus hot-headed, gifted youth. Ian Holm and Bill Kerr both played the type, surrogate fathers teaching boys to be men. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962) bucks that trend. Tom Courtenay is a Borstal boy who learns he can curry favour with the governor (Michael Redgrave) by running. Redgrave wants him to win a big race against a visiting school of toffs. Courtenay has it won by hundreds of metres, but he stops short of the line and stands, staring at the governor. You don’t own me. The film cleverly foresaw the coming youth rebellion of the 1960s.

For Americans, the running movie is usually about Steve Prefontaine. There are two feature films and a documentary, all worth a look. The mystery is why a runner who came fourth in the 5000 metres at Munich in 1972 so captivates the American imagination. Is it because he died in a car crash at age 24, like James Dean? Check out Without Limits (1998), in which he’s played with uncanny resemblance by Billy Crudup, or Prefontaine (1997), with Jared Leto hurtling around the track. I look forward to a Finnish film about Lasse Viren, who beat him so resoundingly.

My own favourite running film isn’t about sport. In The Runner, from 1985, an orphaned Iranian boy has to run for his life, in a cruel world. Made by Amir Naderi, who fled the country soon after, it’s a masterpiece of poetic neo-realism, in which running is a metaphor for survival. It’s an anti-fun-run movie in that sense, but the City2Surf and City2Sea aren’t so different. Everyone who tackles those events is trying to save a life – their own.

Good luck to all who run in November. May your legs be steel springs, or “arrows of desire”, if you prefer William Blake as your trainer. “Bring me my arrows of desire! Bring me my spear! O Clouds unfold! Bring me my chariot of fire!”

Twitter: @ptbyrnes

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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