Sporting Films: Ron Shelton tells our stories

I’ve played a lot of sport in my life. In no order, Rugby, cricket, athletics, football have all dragged something from me. Then there’s the individual stuff like weights, boxing training etc. I loved them all as a participant however crap I was. Now I love them as a spectator.  There’s something about the shared experience of sport, and also the company of men that made the pain worth while.

I broke fingers, ankles, tibular; I dislocated fingers and shoulders. I now suffer with arthritis. It was all worth it for a few hours with men that are still friends, despite not having seen them for years. I know if / when seeing a few of them that when we meet over a beer, there will be a common bond.

This bond is the meat and drink of thousands of men around the world that play games for the love of it, or for a few that get paid for it. That it is such a common subject, it is surprising that there are so few genuinely memorable movies that really capture the essence of sport. The sound as a ball is hit perfectly by foot or bat, the realisation that you’re going to make a diving left handed catch; the ache the next day. Most importantly the chatter around sport. The interaction of men around sport.

The thing about sporting interaction is that we can all spot a liar. The man who doesn’t really understand football but knows how many assists Lampard has grabbed for Chelsea this year. The man who doesn’t know boxing but talks about how great “Sugar Ray” was, despite not knowing there were two.

Perhaps this is why there are so few great sport focused artists. Scorsese might or might not love boxing,  but he made a great film focussed on boxing with Raging Bull. Scorsese however was a genius. A Bradman, Babe Ruth or Pele, he would have made it in many trades. He didn’t necessarily feel boxing in that way that a few authors clearly did.

Boxing might be an exception to the rule. Kid Galahad, Fat City, The Champ, Million Dollar Baby and an awful lot of other fiilms all hit on the madness and ongoing drive of professional boxing. The sport works within a camera frame. It is, essentially, a cinematic sport.

Other sports struggle by comparison There’s no really great cricket film, although Lagan is a good post colonial tale. Football is poorly served. Rugby has “This Sporting Life” but that’s really a “kitchen sink” drama based around sport, rather than being about sport.

If you really want to know about sport, and about the men that play it, you’ve got to find yourself a Ron Shelton fillm. Shelton never quite made it as a baseball player. Years in the minor leagues gave him perspective, an ear for male interaction and an understanding of an impossible dream.

His greatest film is Bull Durham, which has the unique combination of Kevin Costner as a handsome, charismatic, worldly and attractive lead; Susan Sarandon as a seriously sexy baseball philosopher cum groupie and Tim Robbins an idiot with a god given thunderbolt for a right arm

What it really gets right however, what is repeated through White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup are the things that always draw us back to sport. The chat between colleagues. The competition. The pathos. The failure. The mirage of success and then a golden second of success itself.

Sport  has an essential truth at its heart that Shelton understands. For something that doesn’t really matter, it’s sometimes the most important thing in the world. Think about it. The ball nestled in your fingers. Humidity in the air. You had too much to drink the night before, but you know the guy down the other end leaves a gap when he plays a cover drive, and you’re going to  swing it though the gate.

Shelton gets 10 minutes out of that. The internal questions; the nervous chatter between players. The fear that the other side are going to take you out of the game. Then the camera focuses on the 1:1 conflict.

Strangely for films that are fairy tales, Shelton hits on a truth, That grown men play sport to believe in the miraculous., Whether it’s the last ball in your bag for a miraculous chip; beating a legendary team, or going a full season unbeaten, Shelton knows the targets we sportsmen set ourselves and why we surround ourselves with men that will cut us to the quick wit cruel humour then rebuild us with sympathy when we need it.

Crash Davis’ lament for “the show” is perfect – as is the way they all stop when they hear how good he was. Just like we do when we find out “old fred” played against Sobers.

Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once – the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains”

A example worthy of Shelton. My nickname for years in cricket was “state” because I was always in one. I was pretty good and got a lot of wickets, but regularly got slagged off for being hungover and not concentrating. Then my wife and I split up and nothing was said. Nothing until the end of the season. I took 3 wickets and scored 30 runs on a very hot day. On my birthday. I bought a jug of beer as is traditional. One of my fellow bowlers asked how old I was. I was 29. He said, “fucking hell, no wonder she left you, you’ve had a hard paper round”. We choked on our beers.

Shelton couldn’t have scripted it better. Jezza then bought be drinks for the end of the night.

We never made the show, but we were good enough, for a little while.


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