Top 10 British Sports Films

With the world’s eyes on Great Britain for the 2012 Olympic Games Top 10 Films took a look at the best British sports films to grace the silver screen.

With the London 2012 Olympics upon us Top 10 Films has decided to have a look at some of the best sports movies ever made. But these aren’t just any sports movies, no sir, these are the top 10 British Sports Movies! Bet you were thinking us Brits haven’t made any decent films in the genre. Well, in some respects you’d be right. American cinema has certainly prospered with this type of film, its life-affirming tales of baseball, basketball, American Football and others, transcending geographical borders to appeal to audiences across the world.

British film hasn’t been as successful at appealing to a wider audience, taking the sport as a backdrop to hang dramatic, often comic, sometimes downbeat, character studies lacking the grandiose styling, and feel good endings, of its Hollywood cousin. That has meant some excellent pieces of cinema have remained overlooked.

Now, with the world watching, Great British film can finally have its day in the limelight. Believe it or not, we have produced some great films about sport. These 10 are the ones to check out.

10. Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002)

Sport: Football (Soccer)

The name is instantly recognisable. David Beckham is perhaps the world’s most recognisable footballer and his move to Los Angeles following stints at Real Madrid in Spain and a long and successful career at Manchester United in England meant he would forever be one of the sport’s most famous players and ambassadors. Although I’m not a fan of the film’s title with its stench of marketing overkill, it might be worth noting, for those unaware, that it is inspired by Beckham’s ability to bend the football at dramatic angles. This enabled him to become famous for his free-kicks when he could score a goal by kicking the football up and over or around a wall of players. The film follows the exploits of eighteen-year-old Jess Bhamra who has to battle her Sikh parents who don’t share her passion for David Beckham and football. The mixture of barrier breaking in spite of the religious iron fist and gender identity makes for an interesting and entertaining ride.

See what Manchester United footballer Wayne Rooney’s favourite films are here

9. Fever Pitch (David Evans, 1997)

Sport: Football (Soccer)

Colin Firth stars as the devoted Arsenal football fan in David Evans’ comedy-drama about the push and pull world of loving your sports team and loving your partner. Based on Nick Hornby’s novel, Firth gives a creditable performance as Paul Ashworth, a teacher from North London whose devoted support of Arsenal’s 1988-89 attempt to win the English Football League threatens to come between his blossoming relationship with fellow teacher Sarah (Ruth Gemmell). Less about playing the sport, more about those that watch and love it, Fever Pitch (which was later remade in America with Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon) is the sort of film sports fans everywhere can look at and see a bit of themselves in.

8. There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble (John Hay, 2000)

Sport: Football (Soccer)

There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble concentrates on social outcast Jimmy (Lewis McKenzie), a fifteen-year-old who dreams about playing for Manchester City. It mixes notions of the breakdown of the conventional family unit and social exclusion with coming-of-age, teenage romance and finding an identity. All the while, Jimmy tries to break into his school’s football team and possibly help it win the Manchester Schools Cup final. Ray Winstone and Robert Carlyle also star.

7. The Flying Scotsman (Douglas Mackinnon, 2006)

Sport: Cycling

Douglas Mackinnon’s 2006 film is based on the life and career of Scottish cyclist Graeme Obree. Starring Jonny Lee Miller, the film covers a period of the cyclist’s life when he achieved, lost and then retook the world one-hour distance record. All the while, his bipolar disorder continues to pull him back into a spiral of depression. Despite Obree’s troubling mental state, his efforts to revolutionise cycling, and his accomplishments in breaking world records, makes this a heartwarming, emotionally affecting film.

6. The Damned United (Tom Hooper, 2009)

Sport: Football (Soccer)

Distancing the British sports movie further away from its American counterpart, The Damned United is unique in its depiction of sporting failure rather than success. The talented Michael Sheen, whose ability to imitate the personas of public figures has distinguished a career famous for its impersonation, finds himself reliving the role played by volatile football manager Brian Clough. The film looks at Clough’s ill-fated 44 days in charge of Leeds Utd, prior to taking the coaching role with Nottingham Forrest. Leeds Utd had long been a big personal and footballing rival of Clough’s thanks to his disliking of Leeds manager Don Revie. The film switches between 1974 and the preceding five years when Clough, at the time largely unknown, was manager of Derby County. The story attempts to shed light on why it was almost impossible for Clough to be successful at Leeds. His animosity towards Revie alienated him immediately from his inherited players who were all loyal to their old manager. His success with Derby was built on creating a great team out of an inexperienced one. When he became Leeds Utd boss he inherited a great, accomplished team that had won everything there was to win.

Full review here

5. Looking For Eric (Ken Loach, 2009)

Sport: Football (Soccer)

What’s this? A uplifting film from social realist Ken Loach…surely not. But perhaps one of British cinema’s finest directors is softening in old age. This wonderful tale of a down-on-his-luck postal worker who gains solace in an imaginary friend who appears to be his footballing icon Eric Cantona (who became famous in England for his up and down career at Manchester United) shimmers with glistening hope emerging from overpowering gloom. Certainly, more about the fan than the sport, Looking For Eric nevertheless shows the power of sporting heroes in their ability to inspire and invigorate.

Looking for Eric topped our Top 10 films of 2009 | See also Top 25 films to make you happy:

4. Twenty-Four Seven (Shane Meadows, 1997)

Sport: Boxing

Mentioned by some critics as a worthy bedfellow of gritty 1960s Brit-sports films The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and This Sporting Life, Shane Meadows stamped his authority with debut feature film Twenty-Four Seven. The director, whose later credits include This Is England, A Room For Romeo Brass and Dead Man’s Shoes, more than hinted at the themes that would dominate his storytelling as a film-maker. Here we see how disaffected youths, hampered by the remnants of Thatcher’s destructive reign on the suburban working class, deal with their boredom and lack of direction by joining Bob Hoskins’ boxing club. There they learn the art of the sport, and channel their energies into fighting in the ring, not out of it.

3. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962)

Sport: Athletics

Along with This Sporting Life, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner remains one of British cinema’s best sports films. Emerging during the British New Wave period of the early 1960s (when films such as Billy Liar and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning also appeared), the film depicts rebellion and the working class struggle in the form of Colin Smith (Tom Courtenay), an unruly young man sent to a reform school where he excels at cross country running.

2. This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963)

Sport: Rugby

Director Lindsay Anderson, who created waves within the British film industry during the late 1950s with the Free Cinema movement, took the social realism themes he desperately wanted to convey to the sports arena with This Sporting Life. Starring Richard Harris as a rugby league player in the grim-up-north town of Wakefield, the Irish-born actor delivers one of his finest performances as a man with muddied emotions who successfully lets rip on the pitch but finds off-field life more troubling.

1. Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981)

Sport: Athletics

If Chariots of Fire wasn’t widely known previously, it is now. Featuring as a key part of the London 2012 Olympic Games’ opening ceremony, in the sequence when Mr Bean begins dreaming of running on the beach while supposedly helping the London Symphony Orchestra play Vangelis’ memorable theme music, Chariots of Fire is the quintessential British sports movie. It is also one of Great Britain’s most accessible films in the genre, depicting a couple of underdog athletes who compete at the 1924 Olympic Games. Chariots of Fire was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning four including Best Picture.

Written and compiled by Daniel Stephens.

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Blandine Etienne Reply

    I have seen only half of these and I have never even heard of those five films. Before I click on the link for these lists, I always try to think of 10 movies and I couldn’t do it for this topic. Will be adding the remaining five on my Netflix queue.

    My favorite is The Damned United for all of the reasons you mentioned. I was pleasantly surprised with Looking for Eric, perhaps Loach’s most approachable film.

  2. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Blandine: Thanks Blandine. Yeah, I agree with Looking For Eric being Loach’s most accessible. There’s a lot of sadness amid the uplifting, and funny, finale but it balances out nicely. It certainly isn’t a typical sports film, and there’s no “big match” at the end, but it is one of the best films (and a rather unique one at that) I’ve ever seen about the “fan”. A moving, funny and uplifting piece of work from Loach.

  3. Avatar
    Sir Phobos Reply

    I won’t lie; I haven’t eve heard of 9 of these. I’ve heard of Bend it Like Beckham, and the American version of Fever Pitch. But, wow. Basically, none of them. I am ashamed, sir.

  4. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Sir Phobos: That’s a good thing though…now you have nine “better” films than Bend It Like Beckham to check out. 🙂

  5. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    Like many, I’d never even heard of many of these (Chariots, Beckham and Damned United excluded) so I guess my knowledge of British sporting films is sadly lacking.

    Perhaps a top 10 list of Australian sporting films could be made? Dan? Are you there? No, I couldn’t come up with 10 either… 😉

  6. Avatar
    Jack Deth Reply

    Hi, Dan and company:

    Great list of films!

    ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’ is not only a great sports film. It’s also creme de la creme of the ‘Angry Young Man’ films of the 1960s and beyond.

    ‘This Sporting Life’ falls in a close second or third.

  7. Avatar
    mark Reply

    Top 10 Australian sportz films:

    (10) The Club

    (9) Coolangatta Gold

    (8) Phar Lap

    Yeah Rodney, you’re right – that’s about it… there are, however, a couple of miniseries that help make up the shortfall, namely:

    (7) That one about Bradman and Bodyline (it might have been called Bodyline)

    (6) Howzat … not sure if it’s been on yet, but I’m not sitting thru another show about Kerry Packer after the Womans’ Weekly thing.

    Still not there. What about some possible Aussie script ideas:

    (1) Alan Jones coaching the nation’s rugby side back in the 1980s (where he makes all of the players wear tight black shorts)
    (2) Ben Cousins and his fall from grace (where he gets dad to stand at a bus stop at 4 in the morning while he goes off looking for drugs)
    (3) Something about the winning of the America’s Cup in 1983 (this may have already been done, being culturally significant and all).
    (4) Something about how the Chappell brothers helped stab cricket in the back (now that would be good).

  8. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Rodney/Mark: One of my favourite sporting films of all time is Roger Donaldson’s Anthony Hopkins-starring World’s Fastest Indian. Now, while not being an Australian film it is part-produced in your neck of the woods…well, that side of the hemisphere anyway, in New Zealand!

    Am I right is saying the biggest sports – most watched/supported – in Australia are Aussie rules football and cricket? Where does rugby factor in? While making this list I couldn’t think of any films about cricket…surely there’s scope for a good against all odds story…

  9. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    @ Dan – Sorry I’m hijacking this post, my friend! World’s Fastest Indian is indeed a terrific film, but Aussie’s are only keen on claiming NZ actors as our own, not their films.

    @ Mark – Howzat screens later this month (or early next, there’s no word yet – only “after the Olympics”) but I’m over it already. I totally forgot about Bodyline, which was a great mini-series and well worth a look.

    For example, how’s this piece of classic dialogue:

    Upset English Captain (Jardine?) to Aussie Captain: “One of your players called me a bastard”

    Aussie Captain (to his team in the dressing room) “Okay, which one of you bastards called this bastard a bastard?”

    They don’t write them like that these days.

  10. Avatar
    mark Reply

    Dan – Yes, cricket and Oz Rules are the biggies Down Under, but rugger has gained significant traction in the past 15 years thanx to TV and sponsorship.

    You are right in your observation that someone should make a film about Oz cricket. Personally, if I was a writer type, I’d do something on the 1981 Ashes series in the UK, when Botham (arguably the greatest cricketer ever to have walked the Earth) threw in the captaincy after match 2 and then more or less won the whole thing single handed. What was interesting from an Oz POV was:
    (1) The selectors chose some really dud players for the tour (including Trevor Chappell)
    (2) They didn’t play the right guys at the right time during the first three matches (namely Martin Kent and Dirk Wellham)
    (3) The whole thing was, in part, orchestrated to disgrace fill in Oz captain Kim Hughes.

    FYI, I reckon the best cricket team ever assembled (outside of the West Indies circa 1975-1988) was the English one that won the fifth test of the 1981 series against Australia. Talk about depth of talent.

  11. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Mark: Having not been around for that 1981 series it has been a tough time following cricket as an England fan over the 1990s and 2000s. For a long time I just got used to watching England comprehensively beaten by Australia (and the West Indies for that matter). Even after regaining the Ashes in 2005 we had to endure a brilliant Australian side hungry to win them back. I’m sure you’ll remember the 5-0 whitewash in 2006-2007 with glee.

    But there is an obvious lack of films about cricket. The test arena would surely provide great drama, especially when you think what can be achieved in character and development over five days. I’m not surprised the Americans haven’t made one since it is still a minority sport over there but I’m surprised nothing has emerged from the UK. Perhaps UK production companies are afraid of the value of such a film overseas (particularly America) even though, strangely enough, baseball (one of the USA’s biggest sports) is played only at a semi-professional level in England and gets no TV coverage at all, yet we love a good baseball movie. The same could be said for American Football.

    Unsurprisingly India has made a number of cricket films over the last ten years although I have yet to see them myself.

    For me personally, the greatest cricketing moment (and one worthy of a movie) was the 2-1 Ashes win in 2005. I didn’t expect it, I don’t think anyone did, so it was a great achievement. It was even better knowing how good that Australian team was – hence the whitewash 18 months later! And yes, we rode our luck! 🙂

  12. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    Stop talking about cricket, you’re putting me in a grumpy mood…. 😉

  13. Avatar
    DEZMOND Reply

    I loved “The Flying Scotsman”, and also that football film shot last year with Damien Lewis, forgot the title. WIMBLEDON was also a lovely film, although it was probably a Hollywood production.

  14. Avatar
    mark Reply

    Sorry Rodney, but I knew there had to be a point to my babble …. best fictional cricket thing I’ve ever watched was made for British TV staring Prunella Scales. Been nearly 30 years since I saw it, but it had something to do with a Sunday afternoon cricket match in the UK somewhere. Not only was I surprised at how funny it was, but about half thru I realised that Ms Scales, whom I’d only ever seen as Sybl Faulty, is actually quite attractive.

  15. Avatar
    MarkusWelby1 Reply

    The Flying Scotsman has caught my eye after watching cycling in the Olympics. Plus having Johnny Lee Miller doesn’t hurt either!

  16. Avatar
    Raghav Modi Reply

    Brilliant round up… found out about a couple of new films that I have yet to watch. The Damned United is so underrated as it has brilliant performances and in my book might have even inspired Moneyball a bit.

    Good one!

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