I find most films nowadays as fascinating as a lengthy history of orthodontics but then I’m spoilt rotten, having watched old black-and-white pearls such as From Here to Eternity, The Asphalt Jungle and My Man Godfrey. When Chariots of Fire came out some 40 years ago I went bananas. My uncle had competed in the hurdles in both the 1932 and 1936 Olympics, and my father was on the relay team. Athletics back then were for pure amateurs only, and as in the case of the great Jim Thorpe, anyone caught having ever been paid even a dollar for competing in any sport in or out of the Olympics was obliged to give the medal back. Chariots of Fire captured the will, luminosity and purity of the amateur athlete who competes honourably for glory and would rather die than cheat. Which brings me to the latest film my friend Michael Mailer has directed, and whose premiere I attended last week in the Bagel.
In brief, it’s Chariots of Fire on water. Heart of Champions was inspired by a true life story that took place back in 1936. Nine working-class boys in America’s Northwest decided to challenge the upper-class crews that made up the Harvard, Yale and Princeton rowing teams that were competing to represent Uncle Sam in the Berlin 1936 Olympics. To everyone’s amazement, they ended up winning, going to Berlin and winning again, beating Italy and Germany in the final. Apparently even the Führer was impressed when told of their background. There have been books (The Boys in the Boat) and documentaries about it.
Michael’s movie has nothing to do with that event, and is set in 1999 in a fictional university battling against Harvard and other grand schools. The star is that wonderful actor Michael Shannon, who gives a great performance as a Vietnam veteran coach who reads his boys better than any Freud ever could and then some. Michael unfolds the mystery of certain characters over the course of the movie. One can no longer do that in the era of social media as it takes a few minutes online to reveal pretty much anything one needs to know about anyone. Social media is antithetical to mystery, according to Michael, and by extension antithetical to art or the creation of art.
Here’s the director talking to me about the film: ‘The values espoused in the movie, sacrifice, team above self, sublimation of ego, and leadership meant more than they do now.’ Michael also wanted to tell a story of a time when it was OK to get into a fist fight over a girl and not have it labelled a toxic masculinity event.
Harvard is sort of the bad guy in the movie. Michael Mailer is a Harvard grad and has nothing but great affection for his alma mater. (I think the place stinks.) If he hadn’t gone to Harvard, Michael would never have made the film. Rowing at the stinky place is not a sport but a religion. Everyone who wasn’t as nerdy as Mark Zuckerberg went out for freshman crew. No matter how short, weak or fat, whether athletic or clumsy, freshmen went out to row for their lives. Michael did not. He boxed, became captain of the boxing team and went on to the finals of the Golden Gloves where he lost in a split decision after a toe-to-toe non-stop violent match.
Oh yes, and another thing. Crew requires getting up at 5 a.m. and rowing. Michael lusted after girls and went after them and, unlike Zuckerberg, he landed them galore. He also drank Scorpion bowls at the Hong Kong in Harvard Square, was a very good student and even had time to see his father, Norman, when the great novelist deigned to come around the quad and criticise. (You drop your left before the right cross, and Ptolemy was not only once a Pharaoh but also an astronomer.)
So, once the movie presented itself, Michael Mailer was offered the direction and he jumped at it. I won’t spoil it for you, but Harvard loses at the end — at least I think it does, as I was seated next to Arki Busson at the première and he had just cracked a joke about a very pretty girl who was rather clingy in the film.
A party chez moi followed and as luck would have it we overdid things. But it was a Thursday evening, I didn’t have to fly to London until Monday, so I let it rip. I was inspired by the movie. American revisionists seem to think people should forfeit their history, customs, heroes and freedoms to a self-appointed elite. I say screw you, you’re not worth a bucket of warm spit, and like the communism in disguise that you are, you will end up in the rubbish heap of history. There, take it from Taki, go see the movie and punch the next person who cancels you rather hard in the mouth.
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