' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Glory of Sport (1948)

Friday, July 30, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Glory of Sport (1948)

The 1948 Olympics, both Winter and Summer, back in those days when they took place in the same year rather than in two-year intervals, were the first Olympic Games since 1936, the 1940 and 1944 editions called off on account of WWII. You might think, then, that director Castleton Knight’s official documentary of the Games of the XIV Olympiad would linger over this fact. Really, though, aside from opening invocations about competing in the name of peace, as well as recounting the entrance of France, America and England, back to back to back at the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies, never mind the conspicuously unmentioned absence of Germany and Japan, “The Glory of Sport” is not inclined to address this head-on. Indeed, as if seeking to reset The Games in the wake of war, it begins by going back to the beginning, images of the Parthenon and imagining the torch relay, which was invented by Nazi Germany, as staged by the Greeks for the Ancient Olympics, as if reframing the ritual like it belonged to the Gods rather than the wannabe ones. The staging of this sequence, with dramatic narration, resembles a Biblical Epic from the 1950s, which is a whole new look for these Olympics Movies. Part of me wonders if Knight’s entire movie might have been wise to maintain this Biblical Epic veneer, in fact, given the more modest ambitions of what ensues.

“The Glory of Sport” does not crosscut between the Winter and Summer Games but recounts them in order, the Winter version in St. Moritz followed by the Summer version in London. Some of the most striking footage here is of the alpine resort town in Switzerland’s Engadin Valley, a reminder of when the Winter Games, still in their infancy, felt more like “a chilled, charmed kingdom somewhere over an Arctic rainbow,” to borrow William Oscar Johnson’s quote. The quaint Olympic Stadium is nestled at the foot of a mountain, most of the events take place outdoors, right alongside big banks of snow, like the primitive-looking Skeleton race which is literally just a chute carved out of the snow. And while I logically grasp why the latter can’t be the case anymore, it is nevertheless hard not to argue that it is more aesthetically joyful. 

The events, however, like most of the events chronicled at the Summer Olympics, are mostly packaged like a newsreel of the era, with accompanying voiceover. There are thrilling moments, certainly, contained within, like the skeletons going up and over the infamous Shuttlecock corner or how Knight manages to transform a seemingly staid Equestrian event into something thrilling through nothing more low angles and dramatic music, but more often than not these recounting of events merely seem to exist as visual stat keeping. By no means does “The Glory of Sport” want to recycle the sort of propaganda peddled by Leni Riefenstahl for the 1936 Games, but Knight’s approach remains a far cry from films of the future, like “The Melbourne Rendez-vous” (1957), carved predominantly out of humanity and the innate drama of specific moments. 

When Knight does locate those moments, they are expectedly transcendent. The myriad heats of the Men’s 100m dash, all in lockstep, begin to blur into a dull stew until, for the final, he suddenly slows down and lingers over the silence before the starting gun while the musical score (by Guy Warrack) opting for frenzied woodwinds for the hammer throw transforms an oft-overlooked event into something like athletics meteorological event, a metal ball attached to a steel wire as a muslin sock. At an Equestrian event, a rider falls of his horse and tries, unsuccessfully to retrieve it, momentarily transforming The Glory of Sport into The Principles of Comedy. Best of all, though, is a crash during the cycling road race where two fallen cyclists argue. The camera’s position, far back in a long shot, wrings humor from this moment too, the two men bickering as bicycles keep passing in the background. Oh, but when the movie cuts to one of those peeved competitors sitting under a tree, defeated and forlorn, the humor gives way to heartbreak. 


AndrewJohnson said...

Knight’s approach remains a far cry from films?

Nick Prigge said...

Reading it now, I realize I probably should have written "but Knight’s approach remains a far cry from Olympic films of the future"...but hey, the editor at this blog is as mentally exhausted as the writer.