If you’ve heard of director Michael Winner it’s probably as the guy who directed very 80’s action movies like the Death Wish series. But back in 1970 he directed a film about a fictional Olympics and four very different runners that competed in it. That film, The Games, is my movie today.
The film follows four runners from different parts of the world with four distinct storylines all converging with the Marathon at the fictional Rome Olympics of 1970. Filmed on location all around the world with hundreds if not thousands of people in several scenes this production must have been a serious undertaking and yet I’d never heard of it until I started digging deep in my search for Olympic movies for this project. I still haven’t made up my mind as to whether the film deserves to linger in obscurity, or whether it should be revisited, perhaps to inspire a new generation.
The first runner we are introduced to is Michael Crawford as English milk man Harry Hayes who catches the eye of the captain of the local track club, by easily outpacing him while wearing dress shoes and full uniform. Recruited to join said track club Hayes quickly encounters former marathoner turned bitter lunatic coach Bill Oliver played by Stanley Baker. Baker sets Hayes on an incredibly strict and aggressive training regimen and Hayes has enough naive optimism to go along with it. Before you know it Hayes is setting world records in the 6-mile race, and nailing groupies, as well as with his serious ladyfirend. This, of course, presents some pot holes on his route to Rome.
The second runner is American college jock Scott Reynolds (Ryan O’Neal) a hard-drinking skirt-chasing stereotype who is secretly much more devoted to his sport than he lets on. Not so devoted as to consider proper training or anything, but sufficiently devoted to take up the marathon as his new race shortly before the games. Perhaps with a little chemical assistance from a friend/amateur pharmacist played by Sam Elliott.
The third competitor is Aboriginal-Australian Sunny Pintubi (Athol Compton), discovered in the back-country by cartoonish bookies/promoters, who bring Sunny to Sydney with the hopes of exploiting his prodigious talent as a runner to make a few bucks. Compton isn’t a real actor and most of the people around him are complete cartoons, but he at least provides the film with an interesting window into Australian race relations circa 1970.
We go behind the Iron Curtain for the fourth main character, the Czechoslovakian “Iron Man” Pavel Vendek played by Charles Aznavour, forced out of retirement by the state-run Olympic committee when Hayes starts breaking his old records. Vendek is portrayed as a decent man simply trying to live his live under an omnipresent regime.
The film moves quickly interweaving the four separate stories until everyone gathers for the games in Rome. Once there we get an interesting critique of Olympic politics. Due to extreme heat coaches and medical advisers want to move the marathon from a noon start until the evening, but the American TV network objects citing the impact on their ratings, so the event goes on at noon. We hear this from time to time now, complaints about NBC having too much power over the Olympic committee, so it’s interesting to see how long that has been going on.
One interesting aspect is the film’s take on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in competitive athletics. If this film had been released a couple of decades later, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this come up in some way, but it strikes me as awfully progressive for 1970. The subject first comes up when Vendek’s communist handlers suggest that there are new ways to regain his competitive edge. Attempting to soothe his sense of fair-play with the sort of “everyone’s doing it,” excuse we still hear today. When Vendek (apparently) refuses such short cuts, that could easily be the end of it, but the subject comes up again. Later in the film the All-American athlete Reynolds mistakenly parties all night thinking the next day’s marathon isn’t until 7PM, when informed that it is actually scheduled for 7AM, his friend and college classmate suggests he take a couple little red pills that he uses to study. Fast-forward to the big race and the American duo are conducting one of the least sneaky drug handoff’s ever staged at a water station along the marathon route. Fortunately we the viewers are served a moral lesson and some unintentional comedy when, (spoiler,) an exhausted and drug-addeled Reynolds get’s disoriented and runs headlong into a piece of Roman architecture, (that looks suspiciously like a plywood set from a movie with a far far smaller location budget,) dashing his dreams of gold.
This is a hard film to rate, but I’m going to say it’s worth seeing. The dialog and editing are paced very well, making the film feel far more contemporary than it actually is. There is also some spectacular location work, particularly in Sydney (where multiple characters comment that the opera house will never be completed,) and most of all in Rome. The nature of the marathon leads to plenty of opportunities to show off the sights of the historic city, and the film really takes advantage of this. In fact, a tv announcer specifically mentions that the marathon will go up and down each of the seven hills of Rome. I am a HUGE fan of Roman history, and so seeing these sights is what allows this film to stagger across the line and finish a success.