- The Sports Film: Games People Play by Bruce Babington
The sports film spans the medium’s history—from Eadward Muybridge’s nineteenth-century studies of locomotion to The Bad News Bears (1979). Bruce Babington’s The Sports Film: Games People Play, part of Wallflower Press’s “Short Cuts” series, briefly considers the genre’s history, themes, and breadth. Any attempt to sum up an entire film genre in barely one hundred pages will surely harbor some oversights. Babington acknowledges as much and makes no claims to exhaustiveness. Instead, he paints in unapologetically broad strokes that aim for “depth rather than comprehensiveness” (p. 4). Achieving this depth in such short order, however, requires meticulous attention to organization—a quality The Sports Film at times lacks.
Babington defines sports films as “narratives substantially built around sports” (p. 6). This intentionally imprecise definition gives Babington occasion to explain the genre’s permeable boundaries with examples like Wim Wenders’ The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty (1972), which is as much a crime drama as a sports film, and 8 Men Out (1988), a historical drama that doubles as a baseball film. Babington’s discussions of these generic overlaps usefully question the productivity of judging any artwork against a stable set of criteria. To this end, Babington does not belabor which films should or should not be considered sports films. Rather—and more fruitfully—he focuses on the tendencies and tropes that characterize those films where sport’s role is substantial.
Among The Sports Film’s most valuable contributions is Babington’s critique of the “overidentification of the sports film with Hollywood” (p. 5) and his explanations of how [End Page 115] the genre has been enacted in Asia, Australia, and Europe through analyzing a collection of productions that North American canons have largely ignored. His investigation of the genre’s international contours provides a useful supplement to Aaron Baker’s Contested Identities: Sports in American Film that considers how cultural and national differences impact the genre’s adoption and deployment.
The body of Babington’s short book lays out the sports film genre’s major ingredients and explains its prominent subgenres. While it offers a detailed picture of the sport film’s range, its organization is at times unclear. For instance, Babington’s first post-introductory chapter covers the biopic, history, and documentary subgenres. It then moves on to the boxing film, Asian boxing films, and films that feature female boxers. It concludes with a protracted discussion of John Huston’s excellent boxing film Fat City (1972). As Rocky (1976), Raging Bull (1980), and Million Dollar Baby (2004) attest, the boxing film is inarguably one of the sports film’s most prominent subgenres. But there is no clear sense as to why Babington discusses it directly after the biopic, history film, and documentary. A reasonable guess is that the boxing film somehow usefully explains the biopic, history film, and documentary subgenres. There are certainly boxing films that do so. However, the individual film to which Babington gives most of his attention in this chapter—Fat City—is not a biopic, history film, or documentary. While his discussion of the boxing film is fascinating, its inclusion in this chapter and arrangement at times seems arbitrary.
The following chapter demonstrates a similarly loose structure. It moves from a discussion of how sports films stage sporting action, to the fan film, to the sport comedy, to the female sport film, and finally, to race-centered sports films. All are interesting and relevant topics, but the threads that unite their presence—beyond their common relevance to the sports film—are unclear.
Though the manner in which the book’s body chapters are organized is somewhat puzzling, Babington ends The Sports Film on a high note with detailed readings of four important sports films: Chariots of Fire (1981), Field of Dreams (1989), Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001), and Any Given Sunday (1999). His detailed examinations demonstrate the sports film genre’s breadth and characteristics with a degree...