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Back to Hollywood's America

Sports in American Film

Until relatively recently, sports films rarely succeeded at the box office. Sports films, which were considered movies for young boys, were associated with hero worship, nostalgia, sentimentality, fantasy, and crude melodrama-qualities that repelled film critics. Such films tended to have relatively low-budgets, and even sports fans were put off by the films' inaccuracies, whether these were mechanical (such as having Babe Ruth swing the bat from the right side) or more fundamental (suggesting that a single pitch, shot, pass, or punch makes the difference between victory or defeat). But since the success of "Rocky" in 1976, the sports film genre has flourished at the box office, and has attracted audiences that would never dream of going to a boxing ring. While the appeal of many of these recent films lies in heartwarming stories of victories over great odds, sports films have also served as a serious way to explore human psychology, especially the challenges of adjusting to aging or the contrast between childhood fantasies and the harsh realities of adulthood.

Rarely are sports movies simply about the joys of athletic competition. Rather, Hollywood has used sports symbolically, as an arena where individual character is revealed or manhood is achieved or as a screen on which larger themes can be projected, such as heroism, aging, maturity, competitiveness, corruption, or the costs of victory. Many sports films create mythologies. Bio-pics (screen biographies) have mythologize such figures as Yankee first basement Lou Gehrig, but many sports movies have reinforced broader mythologies, about the indomitable human spirit and about the ability of ordinary people to overcome obstacles through perseverance and grit. Many sports films aimed primarily at a children are highly didactic, designed to teach lessons about the values of teamwork, self-control, sacrifice, the possibility of triumphing over great odds, and the need to obey rules.

The first baseball short, Thomas Edison's "The Ball Game," appeared on the screen in 1898 and the first feature-length baseball film, "Right Off the Bat," came in 1915.

Photographed from one camera position behind home plate, the film shows a baseball game in progress. The action includes two players running toward the camera;
one uniform is distinquishable as Newark, New Jersey.
Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division Washington, D.C.

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Since then, baseball, boxing, football, and basketball have appeared regularly on the screen in comedies, mysteries, musicals, romances, fantasies, and many other genres. Certain constants tend to run through sports films. The hero is generally a youthful outsider who encounters a series of frustrations and humiliations before proving his gumption.

  Sports has often served as a metaphor for patriotism, enduring American values, and the link between generations. But many sports films have also focused on bribery, dissension, and jealousy. Sports movies have repeatedly served as a vehicle for exploring the quest for redemption, the cult of celebrity, and the possibilities of triumphing over great odds. Curiously, a number of recent sports films (from "Mr. Baseball" to "The Legend of Bagger Vance") have extolled certain eastern philosophies emphasizing self-denial and self-control as keys to success.

"Inside each and every one of us is our one true authentic swing. Something we was born with. Something that's ours and ours alone.
Something that can't be learned... something that's got to be remembered."
Bagger Vance

Why have sports movies grown more popular in recent years? The answer is that sports has offers a stage on which filmmakers can deal with themes that are difficult to address through other genres:

  • Bad News Bears: Estrangement between divorced fathers and their children
  • Breaking Away: Class-tensions
  • The Great White Hope: The country's historical burden of racial discrimination
  • Hoop Dreams: The nation's economic and racial divide
  • Raging Bull: Self-destructive personalities



This site was updated on 25-Jul-14.

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