'Eddie the Eagle's Screenwriter Picks His 10 Favorite Underdog Sports Films of All Time
'Eddie the Eagle' tells the story of Britain’s first Olympic ski jumper, Eddie Edwards, a lowly plasterer with Coke-bottle glasses who beat the odds to fulfill his dream of competing at the 1988 Winter Olympics.
When I was first approached in 2002 about writing the screenplay of his life, I knew instantly it would make a great movie. (What I didn’t know was that it would have been quicker to train and go the Olympics myself, but that’s another story. “Two underdogs. One dream. 1,207 drafts…”) As madcap as Eddie’s real life exploits were, they still contained the core ingredients of any classic underdog sports movie: determined misfit, scant resources, whacky training methods, sporting authorities out to stop him at every turn, and – of course – a heart-tugging triumphant ending even though he came last in both events.
The only thing missing from his amazing journey was that beloved staple of the genre, the grizzled, curmudgeonly coach – the more hard-drinking, the better. Enter Bronson Peary (played by Hugh Jackman), our fictionalized former Olympic jumper, whom Eddie badgers into helping him achieve his Olympic dream.
In reality, Eddie was helped by a succession of fellow jumpers and coaches. In Lake Placid, he got free tuition from two kind-hearted locals, Chuck Berghorn and John Viscome. Results were limited given Eddie’s late starting age of 22. “You couldn't really teach him anything,” admitted Berghorn, but they admired his guts. Later, when Eddie gatecrashed around the Europe jumping circuit, he cadged advice from a whole string of folks in the jumping community. All of which was no help for a movie version, so Peary and his whiskey flask sprang to life in part as an homage to the glorious booze-swilling figures from the 70s sports movies I grew up loving so much.
Here then, to repay the debt, are some of my favorite films from the underdog hall of fame.
The Bad News BearsPhoto Credit:
The Bad News Bears, 1976
The original ragtag team of Little League losers who make it all the way to the final without losing their anti-establishment charm.
“Hey Yankees... you can take your apology and your trophy and shove 'em straight up your ass!” Walter Matthau’s coach starts out as a fall-down drunk and ends up being just what these kids need. One of the most underrated films of the 1970s.
Slap ShotPhoto Credit:
Slap Shot, 1977
The alas fictional Charlestown Chiefs find hockey success by gooning it up under aging player-coach Reggie Dunlap (Paul Newman). For a foul-mouthed beer-swilling gongshow, it’s full of sly ironies. The team wins the cup, but only after their opponents are more disgusted by a male player doing a striptease than the bloodletting fisticuffs. The Chiefs main enforcers, the Hanson Brothers, are teetotal soda drinkers, and picky ones at that. “Get me a grape or an orange. And none of that sinkin’ root beer!”
Major LeaguePhoto Credit:
Major League, 1989
Where better place for locker room humor than a locker room? Despite the unpromising tagline (“A comedy with bats and balls”), this baseball romp is a breezy lowball delight. A baseball team specifically assembled to lose by its rich bitch owner turns the tables by going all the way. In classic underdog fashion, Tom Berenger clinches the pennant by pointing majestically to the stands for a home run, only to hit a bunt.
Breaking AwayPhoto Credit:
Breaking Away, 1979
Oscar-winning mix of bicycle racing and lyrical coming-of-age drama, vivified by a terrific sense of place (Bloomington, Indiana) and an acute sense of class. Our heroes are four blue collar natives pushed aside by the gilded college youth until a bicycle race presents the perfect opportunity to strike back. Has one of the great sports movie fathers in Paul Dooley, recoiling in horror at his son’s infatuation with all things Italian. “I want some American food, dammit! I want French fries!”
What is it with sports and Indiana? This rural basket ball drama pulls off a three-pointer by taking a square-jaw approach to its championship winning season without ever provoking unintended laughs. Inspired by a real life 1950 team, the film took a few liberties for dramatic effect. Gene Hackman’s straight arrow coach never had a romance wth Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper’s heartbreaking town drunk, Shooter, never existed at all. Yet the results never feel contrived.
The quintessential American underdog story and now the stuff of national myth. It’s amazing how gritty and bleak the first movie was compared to some of the sequels. These are trapped people, struggling in biting underclass poverty. People often forget Rocky loses his big fight; his victory is proving he can go the distance.
The King of KongPhoto Credit:
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, 2007
A documentary about obsessive Donkey Kong video gamers, but cunningly structured like an archetypal underdog sports movie. The everyman contender chasing the world record is a sad-sack unemployed teacher, while the reigning champ is the unimprovably villainous Billy Mitchell, a hot sauce tycoon from Florida with a Prince of Darkness mullet and a wife with breast implants.
Cool RunningsPhoto Credit:
Cool Runnings, 1993
Eddie and the Jamaican Bobsleigh team were at the same Olympics, so Eddie the Eagle was always pitched as the British Cool Runnings. In real life, the John Candy character didn’t exist and the Jamaican athletes were pretty solid athletes from the start; one was even ex-army. But movie logic carried the day, propelled by a terrific reggae soundtrack. Disney magic at its finest.
The bowling championships courtesy of the Farrelly Brothers, which means heading to Reno with an Amish wonderkid and Woody Harrelson sporting a prosthetic rubber hand. Bill Murray steals the show as the narcissistic nemesis, ‘Big’ Ernie McCracken, with his plaid slacks and unhinged combover. “Tanqueray and Tab,” he tells the waitress. “Keep them coming, Sweets. I’ve got a long drive.”
A Matter of Size, 2009
A delightful Israeli comedy about a overweight, browbeaten dishwasher trying his hand at becoming a sumo wrestler. What I call a “knish out of water” story. It’s sweet and funny and proves a classic David and Goliath battle transcends all languages and cultures.