Looking back at the most hard-hitting sports biopics

Looking back at the most hard-hitting sports biopics

By AKSHAY SHARMA | | 1 October, 2016
Sports Biopics, Hollywood, Bollywood, Boxing, Formula 1, Rugby
While Bollywood has enthusiastically taken to the sports biopic genre in recent years, the movies produced here so far have been barely able to compete, in qualitative terms, with their Hollywood counterparts. Akshay Sharma looks back at some memorable sports biopics made in the West.
Raging Bull
Regarded as one of the best and most candid biopics of all time, this Robert De Niro starrer movie is based on the life of Italian-American middleweight boxer Jake La Motta. Rather than being about the inspirational rise of a hero, this movie gives a brutally honest account of how La Motta’s life got ravaged by his own vices like jealousy, insecurity and an inherent violent attitude. It presents his decline from a successful boxing champion to a broken and battered man who has lost not just his title but also his family. Martin Scorsese brilliantly depicts the internal turmoil eating up La Motta thanks to De Niro’s utterly convincing and Oscar-winning performance as the main protagonist. Such was the commitment of De Niro to the role that he gained 27 kgs of weight to portray the older La Motta. The boxing scenes in the movie are both realistic and brutal, possibly on account of La Motta himself having assisted in their shooting.  The movie is now considered a classic and is rated by many as the best sports movie of all time.
Chariots of Fire

This British movie is about two athletes who represented Great Britain in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Eric Liddell is a devout Scottish Christian sprinter, whose sporting brilliance is only surpassed by his faith in God. His rival and teammate Harold Abrahams is a Jew who is troubled by the subtle anti-Semitism he perceives around him. While Abrahams strains every muscle and eventually wins gold in the 100m race to answer the prejudice against him, Liddell, inspite of being the favourite, pulls out of the contest as the heat in which he has to participate falls on the Sabbath (Sunday). But then, incredibly, Liddell manages to win gold in the 400m race against all odds. The movie takes liberties with facts in order to make the narrative more compelling, but is honest in its attempt to depict the incredible life and achievements of the two sprinters. The scene at the beginning of the movie showing young British athletes running on the beach in their white uniforms and the theme music accompanying it have become iconic.


The 1976 Formula One world championship is regarded as one of the most dramatic in the history of the sport. The two main protagonists were the British driver James Hunt and his Austrian rival Niki Lauda. The 2013 movie Rush, starring Chris Hemsworth as Hunt and Daniel Bruhl as Lauda looks at their rivalry in that season by examining their contrasting personalities and approaches. Hunt is a playboy who enjoys the thrill of high-speed racing while Lauda is an intense, focussed racer who seeks to use his technical brilliance for securing victory. While the movie does take certain liberties with facts, like greatly exaggerating the rivalry between the two racers when actually they got along well with each other, it does present quite vividly, both the danger and glamour that abounds in this sport. The film received a stamp of approval from Niki Lauda who felt that the movie remained true to its subject. While a fan of the sport may enjoy the depiction of high-velocity action, even the uninitiated can appreciate the interplay of human emotions that is at the core of the movie.
The Great White Hope
The main protagonist of this movie is based on the life of World Heavyweight Boxing champion Jack Johnson who was the first black man to hold the title. He achieved this enormous feat at the height of racial segregation in USA. But the life of Johnson was bound to take many more turns, most of them unfortunate, as the establishment refused to accept him and conspired to make his life miserable. Instead of his major achievement, Johnson didn’t get the respect he deserved. On the contrary, his life turned into a tragedy. The movie stars legendary actor James Earl Jones in the lead role. It gives a valuable insight into a society riven by racial tensions which seep into the world of sports as well. Being a 1970 movie, it may not resonate with the present day world of boxing but is compelling for anyone who wants to understand the role race played in the progress of the sport through the decades in USA. Certainly an important film not just for sport fans but anyone who enjoys good cinema.
The victory of the South African rugby team in the 1995 world cup hosted by their country is one of the greatest romances in sports. It was a time when South Africa was yet to recover from the wounds of Apartheid and their rugby team, called the Sprinboks, were seen more as a symbol of white Afrikaner pride rather than the representative of the entire nation. The 2009 movie, Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon as the captain of the Springboks Francois Pienaar, documents the events that led to the memorable triumph of the South African team in the event. It shows how President Mandela chose to use the Springboks, rather than discard them as many people wanted, to inspire the whole nation to come together as one. The sight of President Mandela walking out on to the field wearing the Springboks jersey and handing over the trophy to Pienaar is the most iconic image from the world cup and the movie reproduces it with unflinching accuracy. Interestingly, it was President Mandela himself who chose Morgan Freeman to play him in the movie.


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