Tuesday, 21 May 2024

‘Boys in the Boat’ sports tribute; anniversary festival on TCM


When thinking about the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, the American accomplishment that most readily comes to mind is the triumph of African-American track and field gold winner Jesse Owens.

Winning four gold medals in sprints, relay and long jump, Owens was not just a hero of the Games but a symbol that belied the Nazi theory of Aryan superiority, even though Germany won the most gold and total medals.

George Clooney’s “The Boys in the Boat,” based upon the best-selling non-fiction novel of Daniel James Brown published a decade ago, brings to wider public awareness the improbable story of nine working-class college boys becoming champion rowers at the 1936 Olympics.

At the height of the Great Depression, Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) symbolizes the struggle of those on the lower rung of the economic scale.

Abandoned by his father during childhood, Rantz was on his own as a teenager but he overcame the odds to make it to the University of Washington.

Faced with the prospect of losing his place in college unless he could come up with tuition money, the jobless Rantz was attracted to rowing because a spot on the team would offer a place to live and financial support.

It’s one thing to want to join the team, and it’s quite another to qualify for what is truly a team sport where each member of the crew must work in unison and be able to survive the rigorous training and regimen.

Aside from coxswain Bobby Moch (Luke Slattery) and nervous introverted rower Don Hume (Jack Mulhern), Rantz stands out as the heart of the junior varsity team that would soon best the varsity team to compete with more elite schools.

Under the tutelage of head coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), a man almost of few words as his star rower, the JV team beats the better-equipped University of California team in a regional competition.

The bigger challenge comes when the team travels to the East Coast to face Ivy League teams in qualifying for the Olympics. It’s a case of “no money versus old money,” and the underdog Washington Huskies prevail.

When informed by the U.S. Olympics Committee that the Huskies must pay their own way to Berlin, one more challenge is overcome when the community rallies in fundraising. A touching moment arrives when an unexpected donor helps them to meet their financial target.

When it is said that “rowing is more poetry than sport,” that sentiment seems to apply to the crew’s shell builder George Pocock (Peter Guinness) who enlists Rantz’s help in sanding and applying finish to the hull. A bond is formed between the two, adding a grace note to the development of Rantz’s character.

The big moment for the Americans comes in Berlin where the omnipresence of Nazi flags and banners, along with an appearance by Adolf Hitler and a German populace enthralled by the Fuhrer, does not deter them from their mission.

Knowing the outcome, the race itself must have enough drama to be entertaining. As usual, the Huskies get off to a slow start from a disadvantaged position on the water, and eventually prevail in what is as thrilling as a photo finish at the Kentucky Derby.

Cynics may dismiss “The Boys in the Boat” as an underdog sports drama we’ve seen too many times before. A conventional formula works here to deliver a pleasurable old-fashioned inspirational story that is extremely well-crafted.

To the untrained eye, rowing looks like a very mechanical sport with the coxswain and eight rowers propelling the racing shell in a straight line. In the film, the cinematography captures the tension and taxing physical nature of the sport in a very thrilling way.

Above all else, “The Boys in the Boat” is about scrappy team spirit overcoming all odds for the rowers to be heroes to their school as well as the nation. That this film is based on a true story makes it all the more remarkable.


During the month of January, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Columbia Pictures.

TCM host Ben Mankiewicz’s month-long showcase of the studio’s films with a different decade from the 1920s and 1930s with “It Happened One Night” all they through to the 2000s.

Other great films from the first night include the classic 1937 screwball comedy “The Awful Truth,” starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, and the 1938 comedy “You Can’t Take It With You,” starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur.

The second night includes Elia Kazan’s masterpiece “On the Waterfront,” starring Marlon Brando and featuring Eva Marie Saint in her film debut.

“On the Waterfront” won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando and Best Director for Kazan.

Over other Wednesday nights, the tribute includes “Taxi Driver” with a young Jodie Foster, “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Funny Girl” starring Barbara Streisand, and ending with 2006’s “Marie Antoinette.”

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

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