I thought this would be an easy article to write. After all there must be dozens of films to choose from to get my top five best ever British sports movies. But it wasn’t the case at all. I had to really wrack my brain to come up with five. Which is bizarre.
I easily could name twenty brilliant sports films from the US. But convincing dramas from British studios were harder to recall. And no I’m not including trash like Bend it like Beckham.
Having said all that number one on my list of the best ever British sports movies was an easy choice.
This Sporting Life (1963)
Brilliant, brilliant sporting drama. And a pretty accurate reflection of life in a northern industrial town.
Richard Harris was superb as tough rugby league player Frank Machin. In truth Machin was a bit of a nutter but well cut out to make it in the hard world of professional rugby league. He was talent spotted after decking the captain of the local team in a street fight.
The film follows Frank from the factory to the rugby pitch. And, unusually for British sports movies, the action scenes are very convincing.
Unfortunately Frank’s sporting dreams don’t pan out. Neither does his affair with his widowed landlady.
A really gritty movie which you can find on DVD.
Once a Jolly Swagman (1949)
Made in the 1940s when speedway was massively popular. Huge crowds flocked to the tracks. And speedway riders were some of the biggest sports stars of the day.
This movie follows the adventures of a reckless young rider. Fired from his factory job he is determined to be a star. And his all-action (read dangerous) riding style soon brings him success.
Starring Dirk Bogarde as Bill Fox the movie also boosts plenty of other top British acting talent including Bill Owen, Thora Hird and Sid James. Ironically Owen played an Australian rider whose fondness for listening to Waltzing Matilda provides the title for the film.
There are some realistic racing scenes and the movie provides a fascinating look back at a sport which was second only to football in the crowds it attracted. But speedway riders earned far more than footballers and the film shows Bill Fox’s slide into the glitz and glamour of society parties.
Once a Jolly Swagman isn’t a well-known film but if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend you do so. It’s available on Amazon and it’s also been on Turner Classic Movies which you can access if you have SKY TV.
Fever Pitch (1997)
Almost a contemporary film. Unlike the others in my list of the best ever British sports movies there is little sporting action in this one.
All the action takes place off the pitch as the movie follows the life of Arsenal fanatic Paul Ashworth (Colin Firth). A really funny film based on the book by Nick Hornby. Firth is instantly likeable as English teacher Paul.
The movie follows Paul and Arsenal’s fortunes during the amazing 1988/89 season. Against the football backdrop is Paul’s romance with Sarah (Ruth Gemmell) which threatens to derail everything he holds dear. Namely Arsenal FC.
A real feel good movie despite it being about an Arsenal fan.
Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)
Another 1960s kitchen sink drama but this time based in the industrial midlands. It is a very angry film and attacks the class ridden British society of the 1950s and 60s.
Tom Courtenay (a good Hull lad) plays Colin Smith. A bit of a scumbag Smith was a burglar. Breaking and entering to escape grinding poverty.
Caught and sentenced to borstal he discovers running. Quickly recognised as star by the governor Smith is the borstal’s big hope in a five mile race against the privileged kids from a nearby public school.
Told in a series of flashbacks this is a cracking movie. And the final scenes of the race are very memorable as Smith stops running when assured of victory.
I haven’t seen this film for years. But it’s well worth seeking out if you can.
Chariots of Fire (1981)
I have a confession to make. It was only very recently I saw this film for the first time. No idea why it passed me by for so long.
Of course I was familiar with the brilliant score by Vangelis. And having finally caught up with the movie I can see why it won so many Academy Awards.
I didn’t realise Chariots was based on a true story and Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams were an amazing pair of characters. Although the film does take some liberties with actual events the end result of both Liddell and Abrahams claiming gold is true enough.
It’s a cracking film based around a sporting ethos from another time.
That’s our list of the best ever British sports movies. What would be your number one? Let us know in the comments box below.
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