Every four years, record numbers of viewers escape the doldrums of August and flock to their television screens, hanky in hand, to root on America’s best as they take on the world. The Summer Olympics deliver drama by the bucket load—Kerri Strug’s one-legged landing, Greg Louganis’ head-bonk dive, that guy in the Visa commercial (actually a British sprinter named Derek Redmond) who needed his dad’s help to finish the race—and Beijing should be no different.
So it’s little surprise that Hollywood has capitalized on this insta-intrigue with a few Olympic-inspired films over the years. Here are a few of the best, or at least the most noteworthy.
Seminal German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl made a documentary of Adolf Hitler, Triumph of the Will, in 1935, and was then commissioned to document the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Part eerie propaganda, part choice historical drama—you can practically hear Adolf Hitler’s jaw clinching when Jesse Owens blows away the competition en route to four gold medals—this two-part epic is rightly considered the benchmark for athletic cinematography. The final diving sequence—expert editing, gravity-defying camera angles—remains one of the most graceful four minutes of any sports movie, ever.
Tokyo Olympiad, 1965
At a certain point, watching people running—and running, and running, and running—gets a tad boring without the assistance of a central plot. That said, director Kon Ichikawa’s answer to Riefenstahl’s Olympia, filmed in color during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, is often a gorgeous study of the human body with mesmerizing slow-motion shots of weightlifters, hurdlers and the like. At over three hours, however, this film would test even Bob Costas’ patience.
Walk, Don’t Run, 1966
Cary Grant’s last film also takes place, loosely, around the Tokyo Olympics. There’s an amiable, lolling pace to this romantic comedy, with Grant’s imminent charm the most redeeming feature. His character arrives two days early for a business trip in Tokyo, apparently unaware that the Olympics would leave him without an available hotel room. Grant’s forced to shack up with adorable Samantha Eggar and, later, play the role of matchmaker by pulling in a U.S. marathon walker (Jim Hutton) to help—wink, wink—share the room cost. I could do without the zany climax—Grant semi-competes in the marathon wearing boxers, a T-shirt and tweed cap—but a cameo by a young George Takei saves face.
Personal Best, 1982
The most bizarre flick on this list by leaps and bounds. I’d never heard of this semi-controversial, mildly titillating story of a female pentathlete’s sexual awakening until recently. Starring Mariel Hemmingway (Lipstick, Manhattan) as the raw novice and Patrice Donnelly (a real-life Olympian) as the seasoned vet, the film follows the parallel tracks of their budding relationship and personal competition leading up to the boycotted 1980 Olympics. Slow-mo shots of women running and jumping in short-shorts abound, as do extended (and totally benign) scenes in a women’s sauna. The whole thing’s an ode to female athlete, says director Robert Towne (see below). But all that skin and the lesbian storyline don’t provide the controversy—rather, in one terribly uncomfortable sequence, Hemmingway insists on assisting her boyfriend take a leak. He finds it strange and unsettling. Agreed. But the film, overall, is much deeper and nuanced than the typical sports drama.
Without Limits, 1998
Otherwise known as “The Steve Prefontaine film with Billy Crudup, not Jared Leto.” For whatever reason, two films came out in the late 1990s focusing on the life of this rebellious distance runner from Oregon who came up short at the ’72 Olympics and died three years later. One was directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), starred Leto and mostly flopped. Without Limits, meanwhile, featured a compelling Crudup (brooding as ever, and sporting the same bushy upper lip that would carry him to acclaim in Almost Famous), Donald Sutherland as sage Bill Bowerman (the coach who would later co-found Nike) and director Towne taking another, albeit more cookie cutter, shot at exploring the human side of Olympic qualifying. After going back and watching both, I still think Without Limits wins by a nose over James’ Prefontaine.
Chariots of Fire, 1981
The only reason this overrated Oscar winner makes the list is to point out that it was one of the five worst Best Picture winners, ever. Honestly, name one thing you remember or liked about this boorish British running flick besides the soundtrack.
One Day in September, 1999
A chillingly straightforward documentary about Palestinian terrorists holding Israeli athletes hostage at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. There’s a ton of history and perspective here—consider this the end of the innocence when it comes to sports transcending politics—and among the dozens of interviews analyzing how such a tragic event could unfold is a mesmerizing sit-down with Jamal Al Gashey, the surviving terrorist. Won the Oscar for Best Documentary.
The Hammer, 2007
A surprise medalist. This charming Adam Corolla vehicle—that’s one word not often used to describe the former “Man Show” host—tracks the utterly unrealistic journey of a 40-year-old carpenter who gets a shot at making the U.S. Olympic boxing team. Fantasy plot aside, Corolla made me laugh for a good 30 minutes before turning into an earnest romantic comedy for the last hour. Made for what looks like $20 and a ham sandwich—nobody of note appears anywhere in the film, aside from Corolla—it’s an underdog worthy of making this list.