SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ It's that time of year again: THE RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL in London! On now.. See you there!

Thursday, 8 November 2012

'RUNNING BAREFOOT IN THE PARK'~ Michael Winner's marathon movie 'THE GAMES' (1970) screened at the BFI with a Q&A on the eve of the London 2012 Olympics. A night in which we found out exactly what Winner wanted to do to followers of the Olympic flame with his garden hose - and why, for the man himself, the race is nearly over.


*This review may contain spoilers before the finishing line - watch before reading!*

'The Games', directed by Michael Winner, was shown at the BFI Southbank on the eve of the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics. This was a day where the doom-ridden gloomsayers were out in force - usually complaining about how disrupting the Games would be to their journey into work.

As I travelled into London, the trains were certainly busier than usual, but the carriages were full of people - strangers - chatting about whether they had tickets to any of the Olympic events or, in some unexplainable cases; the huge number of tickets they had managed to get hold of.

One train conductor, holding court on a bench at East Croydon station, told of how he had obtained around twenty Olympic event tickets for the weeks ahead, and had applied for these religiously over the last couple of years (yes - years!) - these tickets, he said, to anyone listening, now made up for the extra hours he was having to work over the next few weeks (for not that much more pay) and the extra number of passenger enquiries and complaints he would have to face! Other passengers spoke of how long they had been applying for their tickets too (or what awful things they'd had to do to get them; sell the dog, quit work; marry royalty..) only to end up with none at all.

Well, I had a ticket to the games that night. It was a ticket to the Games held in Rome in 1960, as filmed in 1970, by Michael Winner, but hey - this was the kind of ticket I wanted!

As I walked along the South Bank towards the BFI cinema; there was a wonderful, celebratory vibe beside the Thames, with beaming teams of athletes drafted in from so many vibrant or wonderfully dour countries from across the world; all out celebrating on the streets of London, united mainly in the only peace process that works better than any kind of politics (and certainly the Eurovision Song Contest) - sport.

The Olympic teams for London 2012, off-duty on this (for once  rain-free) night, were out enjoying themselves before the serious competing started in a couple of days; and so I found myself surrounded by large groups of toned teams strolling alongside the packed outside tables of the riverside cafes and bars, with me somewhere in the middle in my jeans and t-shirt - and all of them dressed in the smartest, cleanest, tracksuits imaginable.

It all resulted in the most surreal of experiences and at that moment, I realised just how insular a place London can be at times - despite seeming so effortlessly cosmopolitan on the surface.

It's a cliquey (but no less special) kind of cosmopolitanism we live under here, at least during those times when we aren't being invaded by groups of Swedish swimmers and Japanese javelin throwers. And - oh, those Swedish swimmers looked ready to dive into the murky Thames at the slightest excuse!

Maybe, I thought, I should dive in, pretend to drown, and test out this theory. Though while to be rescued by a pumped-up young Swedish blonde backstroker in the early hours of the evening, may have been exactly what I needed, I would then be late for the hard man of cinema himself - and liable to be shot on the spot.  

This welcoming, if sometimes sulky, city of ours was swelling to the occasion on the night, with once jaded locals (now the moment had finally arrived) mixing easily with this sudden swarm of strangers - this pumped-up army of wide-eyed visitors all raring to race.

The general assault to the senses all round, on such a warm 
Sunday night along the South Bank was of one massive party taking place with a guest list featuring the fittest party-goers only a feverish dream would normally allow - Greek and American goddesses, Australian and Russian adonises almost actually glowing with all the excitement and certainly bristling with almost visible anticipation of the days ahead!

I know I'm in danger of repeating myself, but the world really did seem suddenly full to the brim with beautiful people. That's what I remember thinking, for some reason, the most - as I hurried towards the BFI box office. If a friendly alien invasion ever happened, I'd imagine it to be close to what it felt like to be in London, on such a unique and crowded night..

- but guess who wasn't enjoying any of this? Though to be fair, like most of the rest of us, Olympic fever was a sudden jolt to the system too far as the event loomed; a pushing-screaming into riding along with the gold, silver or bronze-rush after a certain amount of pre-Games appropriate media scepticism, mainly focused on whether the Stadium would be built in time or even just fall to bits.

Just the day before, we had all been laughing about the outrageous lack of security in the stadium itself with the army apparently being drafted in to lend a heavier hand - perhaps astoundingly; this was the major issue in the days before the Games commenced.  Even prominent US politicians were having a go at us! It was all so natural to British sensibilities, to be defiantly cynical of the London Olympics 2012, - we is what we is. But the moment other countries seemed to be mocking us, also seemed to be the point we cast aside out self-doubt and put on the armour; suddenly Britain was the under(British Bull)dog ready to bite back. Suddenly, this was a proud country ready to rock - if not quite roll over in a gymanastic kind of way on a soft blue mat. Most importantly, it was time to get behind the girls and boys in bikinis (I think) playing beach volleyball outside Buckingham Palace. God bless the Queen..

And the man most likely to be a sceptic of the sporting kind (despite a surname that promises otherwise) still wasn't haven't fun with the Olympics, despite the buzz outside the BFI South Bank, and despite being the chap who once gave us a movie (but now rather forgotten) about the sporting event that we were all about to be swamped with and caught up in, over the weeks ahead.

Appearing in person at the screening of his neglected, sweaty, thirst-inducing movie marathon - 'The Games', a playfully catty Michael Winner, the film's director, was asked whether he was looking forward to the 2012 Olympics? Apparently not - or rather: "no I'm fucking not" I think I heard him splutter - and had even told his new wife to get the garden hose ready for when the torch went past his house; ready to disperse those pesky crowds out to watch the Olympic flame go by. I have a feeling the man would urinate on the flame himself, if the standard hose didn't work. God bless Michael Winner I say, whether you agree with him or not!


I've always been a huge fan of Winner, as you may have guessed; this great British film director who, shortly before the screening of 'The Games' in the Flipside strand (a night that focuses on the forgotten and quirkier gems of cinematic oblivion) had been interviewed on TV bemoaning the fact his films never earn themselves a season at places such as the BFI. He may not have been awarded his own season here yet, but the best and most fun nights at the BFI are always as part of the Flipside archive trawl, and tonight the curators of this event (Vic Pratt and Will Fowler) treat Winner with the respect that, I know, he deserves.

From the powerhouse devastation of 'Death Wish' (and the two - for me - also great Death Wish sequels that Winner went on to make with his great pal Charlie Bronson) to the sly and erotic 'The Wicked Lady' (better, to my mind, that the orginal) and from the ultra-violently-stylish realism of the criminally underrated 'Dirty Weekend' to the harder-edged, stark brutality of Bronson (again) in 'The Mechanic' - I remain a proud and loyal Winner fan (I'm not sure there's a name for us - maybe 'The Winnerbees' or 'Winner's Sinners' or the 'You Must Be Bloody Jokings').

I was new to Winner's 1970 rarity 'The Games' though and despite not being a lover of sporting movies generally (unless you count films such as 1975's 'Rollerball' that is or even the spot of murderous javelin throwing in 1979's sleazy 'Midnight Blue') - I was really looking forward to this screening, even though I'd probably be even more looking forward to a Michael Winner screening had it been Bella (Lia Williams) and her dreadfully 'Dirty Weekend' that she took in an out of season October of 1993 being shown tonight; chopping up those male chauvinist pigs in Brighton and probably sizzling their remains like the filling of a bacon sarnie on the seafront in the film I consider to be my favourite (though sadly still cut in the UK - surely some distributor can get this film a decent unslashed home video release sometime soon) from Winner's back catalogue. But no, we were gathering for 'The Games', and clearly, Winner's film probably only gets the gig tonight for being a film in the right place at the right time. I'm just happy it is.

The Olympic event featured in 'The Games' is the one held in Rome in 1960. We follow the lives of four athletes hoping to take part in the marathon event: Michael Crawford (brilliant here - he really was an unsung hero of British cinema before TV sitcom and the Phantom dragged him away, though as a boy I saw him as the most wonderfully flamboyant 'Barnum' on the London stage, and have never forgotten him in that iconic role) as the British milkman and runner wannabee - Harry Hayes; Ryan O'Neal (an early film role) as the wisecracking womanising US hot-jock - Scott Reynolds; Charles Aznavour as Czech champion - Pavel Vendek and Athol Compton (who never really went on to fulfil the huge promise shown here) as the Aborigine sprinter - Sunny Pintubi.

Our focus starts on Michael Crawford's character of the chirpy, cheeky and unassuming milkman (you better believe it!); Harry Hayes. We first meet Harry as he runs alongside a professional competitor on his early morning round and gets spotted by Stanley Baker (who I adored in the BBC's mid-70's TV drama, 'How Green Was My Valley') as the obsessive Team GB coach; Bill Oliver. It's not long before handlebar-moustached and slightly obsessive Oliver has Harry training to the limits and running himself into a very likely early death. Stanley Baker feeds real menace into this role of a limping, grimacing, gruff-mannered coach (clearly the limp is an injury that has led to some frustration in Bill's life at no longer being able to compete himself in sporting events). But the role isn't a carbon copy villainous one. At no time do you think that Bill doesn't want Harry to win the marathon - but he would do anything to achieve this, destroy lives to do so; is maybe running this race with Harry as his surrogate legs.

Crawford is suitably bemused and cheery enough as Harry the milkman and long-distance marathoner, and there's real pain and desperation in the climatic stages of the race that are desperately exhausting and memorable to witness in your comfy seat (and in my case; with a big plastic glass of red wine in one energetic hand); you really do - so to speak - feel Crawford's pain as the winning line gets ever closer and increasingly further away.

There's a link from Harry's stumbling towards the finish line -disorientated and in terrible pain at the end of Winner's film, to the Olympic athlete Dorando Pietri. The legendary Italian athlete had entered a local race as a young man in his work clothes one day, attracted by an Italian champion called Pagliani running in the same event - Pietri overtook Pagliani and (so to speak) never looked back; eventually reaching the 1908 London Olympics where he competed in the toughest event of all; the marathon, in the middle of a London heatwave. Pietri was overcome by exhaustion near the finish, staggering along the track and falling over countless times - he eventually had to be guided in the right direction by officials, which led to him finishing the race, but being subsequently disqualified as a result.

Pietri earned the support of the British public for his heroism and even had royal approval with Queen Alexandra  presenting the runner with a special silver cup as compensation for missing out on a medal.

There was also praise from Arthur Conan Doyle in the Daily Mail, who wrote; 'the Italian's great performance can never be effaced from our record of sport'. A song was also dedicated to Pietri's achievements by Irving Berlin called 'Dorando'.

In the 1904 Olympics held in St.Louis, a far stranger way to finish a race after exhaustion occured when marathon competitor Fred Lorz, not long into the race and suffering from exhaustion, climbed into his manager's car, and asked to be dropped off close to the finishing line - not surprisingly, he was disqualified although later claimed it was a 'joke', apologised and won the Boston marathon the following year. I have a suspicion, an athlete with such brazen gall may well have some appeal to director Micheal Winner's opinion of sporting achievement!

I like to see Crawford's character of Harry also resembling the racing heroics of long distance runner Chris Chataway. Later moving into broadcasting and politics, Chattaway is probably best known for pacing Roger Bannister in 1954 to bettering the four minute mile. At the Helsinki Olympic Games in 1952, this chain-smoking, red-haired outsider had entered the 5,000 metres final, where he was overtaken at the last by such runners as the legendary Emil Zatopek (more on him later!) and lost out on any chance of a medal when he crashed into the kerb, falling to the ground (although he still managed to finish in fifth place). The equally wannabe heroic, unruly red-haired, chainsmoking (off camera) Michael Crawford, for me, embodies the never-say-die (but way well do by the end of the race!) and unlikely athleticism of the great Chris Chataway.

Harry's life isn't only about the running. This is a Michael Winner movie after all, so you have to expect a glamorous girl weaving a web through all the testosterone on show and there's strong support in 'The Games' from Elaine Taylor (a former 'Bond girl' from 1967's Casino Royale) as Harry's vivacious girlfriend 'Christine'. This girl's intensifying relationship with Harry is in trouble when trainer Bill sets his sights on her - almost jealously it seems at times. For Bill, it comes down to a two-headed choice; the race - or the girl. There's no halfway house here. Things get suitably hot-headed and the 'right' choices get made. As far as Bill (and probably Michael Winner too) is concerned - you can save the love stories for Ryan O'Neal.

Winner's film plays often on Cold War rivalry at the time the Olympics in Rome took place (1960) and also when the film was made (a decade later) with the inclusion of Aznavour's Czech entry into the marathon; a man forced, reluctantly, into competing just to show up the West for being the weakest (in the) race. As a point of interest; our unlikely real life racing hero Chris Chataway's finest hour came in a 1954 race at White City - the London vs Moscow racing meet in which the atheletes had to run under individual spotlights lighting their way around the track. This historic event saw Chataway, unexpectedly beat his rival - the legendary Vladimir Kuts, in a record-beating time; the Cold War rivalry at the time, perhaps, driving him on and certainly making Chataway a British hero (he even went on to win the first ever BBC Sports Personality of the Year award later that year as a result - an inaugural award that continues to the present day).

Chattaway reportedly lit up a large cigar after the race to celebrate winning this Cold War conflict in the darkest heart of White City, much to the chagrin of the visiting representives that had travelled from Moscow to see Kuts win and the West humiliated. Whether star of 'The Games' Michael Crawford's reported heavy smoking on set also had a similar boosting effect on his 'running', is uncertain, athough in the Q&A after the screening, Winner tells all!

Of the other marathon runners we follow throughout 'The Games'; Ryan O'Neal's Scott Reynolds is a man chock-full of ability but liable to ruin everything with the temptation to go too far in his pursuit of winning. O'Neal's backstory concerns a fight to get to the finish line without the aid of performance enhancing drugs (a theme as equally valid in today's unsporting life as back then). Towards the end of the marathon, Scott has temptation staring him straight in the face again - or rather; in his palm, as a desperate coach on the sidelines offers Scott some escape from exhaustion in the sleight of a hand. It's possibly fatal temptation and his subsequent stumble towards the looming edge of a monument near the edge of the racetrack as the finishing line nears - sharp stone aimed straight at the middle of his forehead, is quite painful to think about, even before any kind of collision has even occured. Winner's adaptness for depictions of sudden, unexpected violence wonderfully rearing its rather welcome head here in a stunningly conceptualised, bragging scene of concise and cruel direction; this collison is really - really - going to hurt!

There's a link between O'Neal's character of Scott Reynolds and his potentially fatal use of performance enhancing drugs as far back as those infamous 1904 Olympic Games mentioned earlier. The marathon race that year was a surreal and deadly one, far stranger than fiction - and not only did it see one competitor get in his manager's car to get to the finish line but also had the other competitors racing along the most difficult of courses in the history of the Olympics Games (exceptionally steep inclines, busy roads needing to be crossed, water being deliberately withheld as 'an experiment' in endurance and the athletes finding themselves running through thick carpets of track dust - due to a heatwave -that actually caused one competitor's stomach to rupture mid-race). The marathon that year also nearly resulted in the death of American competitor Thomas Hicks, whose trainers fed him a cocktail of strychnine and egg whites all the way up to the finish line (instead of the far more sensible athelete's drink of choice - water!) and he collapsed, hallucinating (having also been given brandy along the route instead of the requested tea he begged for), in scenes that resemble those in 'The Games' where Scott Reynold's heart kicks into a fast-run race of its own. Hicks went on to win the marathon (the zero tolerance drug rules of today would of course have seen him disqualified in the 2012 Olympics, but were not in place in 1904) and he was said to be one dose of strychnine away from death.

There's something familiar about a race official's description of Hicks at the finish line in 1904, and the desperate stagger of O'Neal's character in the races in the movie where he gives in to the temptation of the stimulants that make his heart race at a sickening rate and bring the face of death right out of those stands full of horrified spectators to stare back at him, mocking his weakness and brazen frailty, straight between the eyes - that unputdownable, self-destructive desire to win at any cost. Of Hicks, it was said: 'his eyes were dull, lusterless; the ashen colour of his skin and face had deepened; his arms appeared as weights well tied down, he could scarcely lift his legs, while his knees were almost stiff'.

Legendary French singer Charles Aznavour as Czech marathon runner retiree Pavel Vendek brings us back to Cold War truth with a backstory of being forced out of retirement to prove that sporting prowess in the Eastern Bloc is still superior to that of any rival of his in the West. The implied threats faced by family man and former star of the track Vendek from his 'Team:USSR' coach and some far shadowier figures hanging around the racetrack make it clear that to not compete would be to bring shame on Vendek's homeland - and possibly invoke some kind of sinister retribution in a cold cell somewhere along the line too.

By the end of the movie; Vendek puts political pressure aside and focuses on winning (his love of the race seeping back into his bloodstream) and his coach seems to want him to win as well (for the right kind of reasons now - especially for Vendek to finish the race with the honour he has earned in previous great victories intact). Fans of Vendek from across across the world are watching to see if he can win such a tough Olympic race again; to find out whether this once great sporting hero still has the passion and the ability of old.

The character of Vendek is possibly inspired by Czech marathon runner, Emil Zatopek who won Gold in the marathon at the 1952 Games in Helsinki. Initially a reluctant runner in his youth, he was persuaded into signing up for a training programme by a school tutor. Although a great runner across other distances, he had never run a marathon, and surprised the British favourite, Jim Peters, in Helsinki by introducing himself at the start of the marathon with the slightly chilling (but not intended as such; Zatopek being known for his friendly chatting away to fellow athletes - and by all accounts the man could talk for Czechoslovakia) words: "Hello - I am Zatopek" before going on to win the race. Less than halfway around the course Zatopek asked Peters if the pace they were keeping was fast enough. When Peters called his bluff by replying it was too slow, Zatopek took him at face value and picked up the pace, going on to win with his trademark pained, tortured expression and seemingly clumsy, arms-flailing style of running.

Zatopek made many friends at the starting block from across the world and back home in Prague became a supporter of democracy as a leading figure in the Communist Party - support that didn't go down too well with the Soviet Union's political and millitary control of Czechoslovakia at this time. Zatopek was expelled from the Communist Party and spent many years of punishment for his political views working down a uranium mine - his sporting stamina and training (measures that had seen him push himself to brutal, excessive, and hernia-inducing extremes throughout his career) probably a good reason he survived this period in his life and came back smiling.

Charles Aznavour in the role of Vendek, doesn't of course look at all like an athelete (Winner tells us later that they were painfully aware of that fact!) but neither did the character's real life counterpart - Emil Zatopek, look much like an athlete. Yet here was a man whose passion for sport and competition was deeply etched in scratches of actual pain, hardship and grim determination across his face; wounds earned from every race he ever ran in and every hardship he ever faced.

And so we reach our final competitor focused on in Winner's Games: Athol Compton as Sunny Pintubi, the Aborigine runner stumbling into (or rather out of) his racing shoes by accident (rather like Crawford's character) after being spotted running by a gruff British chancer and businessman - Jim Harcourt (a man who sees his acquisition of Sunny as more of an
investment than a great athlete in need of nurturing to victory). It's clear that Jim holds racist preducices towards his protege that are tempered by an increasing desire for his boy to win, and the money to be counted - but by the end of the film, Jim's attitudes have shifted, perhaps towards some kind of respect for Sunny, as has Sunny's opinion of Jim changed towards a better understanding of why Jim is the way he is too (and in some deliciously sly scenes, Sunny makes wary friends with Jim's family and especially his long-suffering but equally stubborn and tough cookie wife; Mae - played with an endearing sense of sympathetic decency by June Jago).  

Jeremy Kemp as Jim Harcourt (borderline racist, tough gambler and gruff game hunter - but otherwise a nice chap) gives the character an outstandingly part-villainous and (unexpectedly) part-sympathetic edge that breaks free of potential stereotyping - but it's Athol Compton who steals the show as the uncertain but determined young athlete who is faced with pressure from other athletes not to perform in the marathon as a protest about the second class treatment of black athletes competing that year.

Sunny has living quarters all to himself at the Olympics but it's not as a result of his good standing - only so he doesn't get to mix with the other white team members from his country also there to compete. A smart and subtle scene from Winner that brings home the multi-layered extremes of racism, as Sunny's face goes from seeing his living space as something to be awed by soon followed by a realisation (towards a final begrudging acceptance) of what this 'star treatment' is all really about.

The young Aborigine's barefoot running in the movie is probably a homage to the legendary Ethiopian athlete Abebe Bikila's similar trademark trainer-free competing. The son of a shepherd, Bikila was picked out as a potential Olympic athlete by a Swedish talent scout and trainer hired by the Ethiopian government. Bikila found himself unexpectedly drafted into the Ethiopian team at the last minute, replacing an injured team member and running in the marathon at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. A link to the character of Sunny in the movie; Bikila also ran barefoot in the marathon (that he went on to win) after sponsor Adidas was unable to find him any shoes of the right size; handing him a pair that didn't quite fit as a compromise!

Some 15 years after the release of Winner's movie and a South African athlete (later applying successfully for British citizenship) called Zola Budd competed in the 3000m race at the 1984 Games running barefoot and suffering a hugely controversial collision with rival Mary Decker that saw Decker fall to the ground.

Budd was blamed, even though many years later Decker blamed herself as being the one responsible for the collision as she was not used to running in a tight group. Budd of course finished the race to a chorus of partisan boos and the moment has gone down in sporting (or rather - unsporting) history.

Bikila's life suffered ever greater tragedy than a dent to a promising career that Budd suffered. After winning the 1960 marathon in Rome, this great athlete who had set the world of marathon running alight with his passion for the race and his winning style, was seriously injured in a car crash in 1969 (swerving to avoid protesting students in Ethiopia) around the time Winner's movie was in production - he never fully recovered (although his condition did improve from quadriplegic to paraplegic). Ever the competitor, Bikila took up archery as a sport instead and entered the International Paraplegic Games held in Aylesbury in 1970. The same year this sporting giant also entered a 250km sledge race in Norway - and of course, won the gold!

Abebe Bikila also visited the 1972 Olympics in Munich where he vowed never to give up on his sport - proclaiming that he would one day be the first athlete to win the marathon in a wheelchair. The following year though, this heroic athlete died from a brain hemorrhage but his name lives on in the many films that have been made about his life since, including - if not directly - Michael Winner's 'The Games'.

Winner injects 'The Games' with his unique stamp of cinematic steroid that keeps the heart pumping and allows every moment to be one of significance and pulse-quickening panic or threat. 

Serious issues are confronted in a matter-of-fact, intelligent way and the contrast between Sunny running across sun-drenched beaches and London-boy Harry training in the rugged British countryside; along grey and rain-glistening (and here shot as beautifully enigmatic) local village streets and up steep hills (nature's own gym) where trainer Bill takes him for some overwhelmingly intensive Northern grit training, shows a visionary director at work.

Winner is the kind of unreserved, flamboyant British auteur (even though his films aren't really 'showy' as such, they remain unrestrained even when in a controlled way - the camera's lens often lingering and up close, and the framing often harsh and aggressively exciting, bursting with polite rage) who isn't afraid to enjoy and play with expectations. It's surprising how many actors, who have worked on a Michael Winner movie, when interviewed, speak of how much fun - how enjoyable - the film's shoot was. Even Winner's enemies, seem to have stayed friends with him. It's a shame this director is often over-identified with violent thrillers as the man himself has stated in interviews that he always wanted to make more romantic comedies but ended up being employed where the work was - and for a while, his name was linked with violent thrillers due to the global success of Death Wish (1974).

There were a couple of sequels that Winner made to Death Wish in '82 and '85 and these seriously troubled British censors at the time. I love all the sequels that Winner made in this franchise along with his legendary hard-etched leading man, and great friend - Charles Bronson. As for the critics? Well how about this comment from Winner about the British Board of Film Classification's (BBFC) Director, James Ferman, in the early 80's (a man who criticised the more violent films of Winner's and their supposed - in his view - lack of redeeming qualities or artistic ability): "Well, the censor's view on the quality of films are a little suspect as he (Ferman) was a greatly failed television director himself and out of work because he was so awful and therefore took the job of film censor - which he does appallingly."

The climatic marathon event of 'The Games' is shot with uneasy uncertainty as to who will fall and who will survive - it captures the drive and sometimes unblinkered desperation, to the point of collapse and injury, of intensive sport and overwhelming competitiveness - better than any other sporting movie I've seen.

It's also the closest sensation (I'd imagine) to experiencing a heart attack I've ever had - not because of the excitement of the race, but due to the focus on one competitor whose heart is clearly close to packing up its bags and saying goodbye to the running shoes for life. Crawford's final moments in the race too, are desperate; and the suddenly zig-zagging path of his running echoes the desperate, exhausted and disorientated stagger to the finish line of real life marathon competitor Dorando Pietri.

In effect, Winner directs 'The Games' as how he wants a sporting film to look like; as a heart-pulsing action movie. That's no bad thing - that is, after all, what the best sporting moments are like. Muhammad Ali's 'rumble in the jungle', for instance, is the greatest real life sporting event movie-that's-not-a-movie of all time, one that didn't need a script or a director to tell a story that even Hollywood would have been hard-pressed to come up with. But Winner doesn't shy away from poignant slower pacing and atmosphere when needed in 'The Games', which is for much of the film's runtime - proving his identity as a hard-edged filmmaker also comes with that rare ability to shoot with a reflective, character-based touch when the mood takes him. Angry and thoughtful in equal measure; you suspect this is much like Winner the man is in real life - away from the public glares.

At the Q&A following the movie, Winner talks fondly of all the cast involved in his movie, though does mention that Michael Crawford is a somewhat difficult and obsessive actor to work with at times - generally ruffling feathers (Winner claims) on other movies and even losing out on roles because of his demands (even over how he appears in publicity shots). The gossip is never cruel from Winner and said with an affectionate grin - all the wonderful stories we hear tonight about the many actors Winner has worked with over the years are told with fondness and respect as if he (perhaps) would do exactly the same thing as they have, behave the same way as they did - and probably has! Winner only really talks about the people he likes, admires or finds interesting in some way; you suspect that anyone else probably doesn't really matter that much to him.

There's another great story, one that Equity may need to look away! Winner reveals how the crowd scenes on 'The Games' were especially difficult to shoot because they needed to fill up vast empty stadiums with extras. They ended up using dummy figures that melted in the heat, much to the annoyance of various actors' unions!

Winner also had a lot of assistance from the authorities in Rome, he says, for shots of the Olympic games in progress and the crew were rushed through city streets and supported at location scenes with a huge buzz around this "new Michael Winner movie" celebrating the Olympic spirit with a flashback to the games that took place in the city, only a decade previously.

Winner admits that the scale of the film was huge, but - unusually -they had a decent budget for the impressive amount of location filming involved. This didn't stop him wondering whether the film was worth getting involved with at all at one point, but with the amount of backing and investment the film already had - there was little choice for him but to stay attached. Despite the budget and studio support, Winner says - with a big grin - that he still wasn't sure a movie about the Olympic Games was all that much of a box office draw! He was, of course, right.

At least Winner was able to actually get to film on location in the Outback, and another great recollection from the man tells of a scene they had to film with Sunny racing kangaroos while running towards the fast-moving truck driven by gambler and hunter Jeremy Kemp as the hard-edged Jim Harcourt.

They had to film the kangaroos running alongside Sunny, but not a single kangaroo wanted to do this - presumably Winner wasn't able to get dummy kangaroos as easily as he had the extras in the stadium scene!

Eventually they brought in hundreds of kangaroos to race happily around a pen, but even then they all went in different directions and ended up colliding into each other with only a few kangaroos doing what the crew wanted and running alongside the truck for the desired kanga-POV! At this point, I wondered if Nic Roeg had faced similar problems when he filmed in the Outback for 1971's 'Walkabout'.

When asked who was the best runner of the cast; Crawford was mentioned as being out of breath after the takes and having to take the odd breather - not with an oxygen mask but with a pack of fags! Aznavour, Winner said (and having seen the film, he's not wrong) looked slightly ridiculous in his tiny shorts revealing absurdly skinny legs and O'Neal suitably adept and enthusiastic at looking the sporty sort. It was the naturally athletic Athol Compton, of course, who was the only actor able to actually run like the wind. Or as fast as a kangaroo.

A member of the audience asked Winner whether there were any films that he wished he had made? Winner replies, perhaps surprisingly, that he always wanted to make a version of the William the Conqueror and King Harold story - and the shot of an arrow straight through the eye (along with rape, pillage and the odd sword blow to the head) I'm sure were all included in the Death Wish series at some point; Senlac Hill near Hastings not that far removed from the mean streets of New York back then!

An enthusiastic and compelling raconteur on stage, Winner is on good form - even wonderfully chastising members of the audience for not talking clearly enough, or for asking clearly tiresome (to Winner anyway) questions about intricate details of funding and similar minutiae. Winner even half-scolds one poor man for seemingly not bothering to look in his direction when asking a question, although the poor man was actually only looking at the BFI girl passing over the microphone to him for the less-than-a-second moment when his eyes weren't aimed at the director himself! I wonder - is the world and the people in it, really just a film set-full of actors ready to be instructed by Michael Winner? Even if we are - you can still count me in!  

Michael Winner's far too easily overlooked 'The Games' (nearly half a century on) is an endearingly nostalgic, charmingly acted (oh, by the way - ignore any of those who go on about Crawford looking and sounding like Frank Spencer at times in this movie - it's called being the same actor dear!), cleverly constructed, and often genuinely out-of-breath (with all the excitement of the chase taking place) Olympic-sized character piece that does the popular novel by Hugh Atkinson huge justice; bringing the intricately plotted themes, characters and settings fully alive. It all ends with a thrilling climax in the literally life-or-death marathon race that's well worth waiting for and yes - the equal of any bloody shootout born of bitter revenge from other films in Winner's CV.

I felt far more excited about the 2012 Olympics after watching 'The Games'. I'm not sure if that was because (and clearly this is still on my mind for some reason!) I was still surrounded on the way home by teams of toned and willowy gymnasts and those still swaggering swimmers (but can you really 'spot the sport', as I was trying to do on the way home - or were all the revellers actually just members of the beach volleyball team out to party while the other athletes were all tucked up in bed, conserving their energy?) strolling along the vibrant South Bank with a smile for every Londoner they came across.

Or was it the fact I had enjoyed and fallen in love with another Winner film - one that I knew little about. Or that I had listened to the great man himself talking, so entrancingly, about the making of this hugely enjoyable (if not quite instant favourite) movie - one that, for me, seemed far more realistic, gritty, sweaty and breathlessly enjoyable a sporting adventure than the far politer Chariots of Fire sort of fling.
One last mention about 'The Games' should go to the Elton John-penned song featured in the movie (to be fair, only briefly - on the radio in a bedroom scene); 'From Denver to L.A'. This was recorded before Elton became famous, and released under the name 'Elton Johns'. Shortly after the film's release, the singer hit the big time as Elton John (now without the extra 's' at the end of his name!), and instructed pressings of this track to be withdrawn.

The main soundtrack for the film features the reliable, sultry work of composer Francis Lai who worked with Winner a few year's earlier on 1967's classic "I'll Never Forget What's 'Isname" as well as the softcore saucy likes of 'Billitis', 'Madame Claude 2', 'Bolero', 'Emmanuelle 2' and again with star Ryan O'Neal for 1970's 'Love Story', released the same year as 'The Games' (although of course it was 'Love Story' that went on to become the film that propelled O'Neal into the Hollywood A-list).

Some months after the Olympic Torch left London, and with a successful London games behind us, one that - against all odds - seemed to unite a nation in a way that perhaps only an alien invasion planning to turn this country into an intergalactic amusement park ever could; the newspapers report that Michael Winner is seriously ill and has been told that he has, perhaps, just a year or so left to live. At the screening of 'The Games', I remember thinking it was a joy to see this man looking so vibrant and, well -healthy, clearly bubbling with mischievous life. A little frail, as expected (having contracted a potentially deadly bacterial infection after eating a bad oyster on holiday in Barbados five years ago and which brought him close to death - it's an illness that Winner has never fully recovered from) but it's a bullish frailty on display. And happy too - Winner being newly married, and finally settled down with the woman who he describes as the longterm love of his life.

And so, this great director - a man often the scourge of the establishment but the idol of so many film fans who adore his work, was quoted in the press as considering heading to a clinic in Switzerland to end his days by assisted suicide when the moment when he thought it right to do so arrived. I felt overwhelmingly sad at this news. I thought Winner was like his great friend and partner in crime; Charles Bronson - absolutely, resolutely indestructable. Forever fighting aloud to the last breath. Never - ever - say die.
I suspect we won't be so easily rid of Michael Winner though. There will be some kind of surprise twist in the tale just before his end credits threaten to roll one last time. We will still be hearing the stories about Marlon Brando's one-call-every-day-to-him-until-the-day-he-died or Orson Welles's plea to be shot by Winner's lens in a more flattering light: "He told me to shoot him from the waist up, so he didn't look so fat. I told him - Orson, I could shoot your scene from a helicopter, and you'd still look fat". Like I say, like I'll always say - God bless you Michael Winner.

words: mark gordon palmer

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1 comment:

  1. I watched the clip of the bfi flipside Winner interview & assumed the thousands of plastic dummies story was just that, a typical directors story, then I see stills of the ludicrous man puffing away on his cigar in front of plastic dummies! Now, I only got through 20 mins of 'The Games' on dodgy download so I don't know whether he actually did use dummies ( use stock footage of an arena event, shoot a portoin of an audience? nah! ), but it sums up Winner's lackadaisical approach to film making that he'd go to such lengths just to give his film some publicity whilst using the SAME ACTOR ( John Alkin ) to play two different roles ( Crawford's brother & the American guy presiding over the beer drinking contest ) in adjoining scenes assuming the audience would never notice.
    Michael Crawford & Charles Aznavour as marathon runners? I appreciate your positive review but Winner is without doubt easily the worst film director Britain ever produced.