The summer Games held in Rome in 1960 were probably the first truly modern Games. Fittingly, The Grand Olympics was a new type of Olympic film. It was a lush affair, breathtaking in scale, set amidst ancient Roman ruins. Director Romolo Marcellini‘s film, produced once again by Istituto Luce, captures the lavish proceedings with helicopters, action-filled closeups, and wide establishing shots.
The opening shot is from a helicopter passing over the Vatican. An aerial tour of Rome’s ancient wonders and Olympic venues follows while the opening credits roll, culminating with an unbelievable swoop in and out of a packed Stadio Olimpico before the Opening Ceremony, just meters above the surface. It’s perfect 1960 flair and sets the stage for a beautiful presentation of sport.
LW: The opening was absolutely amazing. I want to go back and watch it again as I write! The flyovers of the ruins were just … so cool.
DW: A few events get in-depth treatment, but for the most part it plays like a collection of brief sporting highlights. Which, really, is just fine. Doing it this way leaves an impression of the event, which I think is the right approach in the modern context. The result is a highly entertaining and engaging experience for the sports fan, and a fascinating look back at a moment in time.
Having jump-started this blog with LA 1984, it’s a real treat to see Rafer Johnson (USA) in his prime. In LA he lit the cauldron at the Coliseum. In 1960, within a short jog of the Colosseum, he went down to the wire in the decathlon against his college friend and training partner, Yang Chuan-Kwang (CK Yang) (TPE). Like the LA decathlon in Greenspan’s film, the 10-event competition in Rome is a centerpiece of Istituto Luce’s film.
There are no interviews with the competitors (well, actually, the narrator has a bit of fun inventing amusing dialogue between the athletes), but the same tension is there, enhanced by a driving rainstorm before the end of the first day and events contested in darkness. If you know the story of these two, the iconic moment where Johnson rests his head on Yang’s shoulder at the end of the 1500 is emotional and dramatic.
At the beginning of the film, there’s a bizarre bit with Armin Hary (GER), the winner of the 100 meters. It immediately reminded me of the Toni Sailer love-fest in the Cortina film. He makes his way through his competitions with invented first-person dialogue, reappearing later for the 4×100 relay (itself an exciting segment).
Cortina’s chorus of singing angels even shows up in Rome, though they’re not for Hary: Wilma Rudolph (USA), the celebrated Tigerbelle, gets the honor. Triple-gold medal darling of the Rome Games, she’s the star of a relatively short segment on the women’s 100, 200, and 4×100 relay. Unfortunately, this is one of the weakest segments in the film.
LW: Shocking that they didn’t cover a women’s event well, huh?
DW: I don’t know, many of the women’s athletics events do get a better look than this segment. It almost makes me wonder if they just sort of missed the boat. But: Rudolph was by no means unknown, and the sprints are marquee events, and there are three of them. There was plenty of time to see a story develop and throw some filming resources at it. You know, she even shows up twice in the village life segment, but isn’t named. It’s kind of puzzling. And yes, I know I’m reaching for an explanation beyond the obvious. For the obvious you can skip down a few paragraphs….
Visually stunning moments are a constant. Of course, the setting helps: see the wrestling competition, held within the ruins of the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine (312 AD); gymnastics, contested at the Baths of Caracalla under a temporary roof (AD 212-216); rowing at Lake Albano, a picturesque crater lake; and boxing in the Palazzo dello sport, a futuristic domed arena. The rowing benefits from a mix of picturesque wide angles and typical race footage, and this is the first truly engaging boxing we’ve seen thus far. Sadly, there’s no Cassius Clay sighting.
There are two incredible cuts in this film, equal parts effective and hilarious, that we must mention. The first takes us instantaneously from the weightless grace of tumbling Soviet gymnasts to a tight shot of a straining Korean weightlifter, complete with an equally contrasting switch in the musical score. Later on there’s another, from diving to pole vault. This second one isn’t quite as funny, but it’s still inspired, with a seamless cut from a diver in flight to a vaulter clearing the bar. Our hats are off to you, Luce!
LW: Have to agree here, the three of us burst out laughing at these cuts!
The Roman Marathon
DW: The soaring apex of this film finally appears at the end, just as the men’s marathon traditionally does at the Olympics. Atop ancient Capitoline Hill, the athletes warm up, preparing for what will prove to be a legendary race in a setting second to none. We’re introduced to the favorites, with the narrator discussing Emil Zatopek‘s Olympic marathon record. The camera lingers for a short moment on one runner at the start line, and the narrator says, cheekily, “I wonder what this Ethiopian’s name is. Everyone knows no one can beat Zatopek’s time.”
Well, we find out who Abebe Bikila is pretty quickly. Running through the Roman streets barefoot as the summer sun fades, he engages in a duel with Rhadi Ben Abdesselam (MAR). Tense music carries them through torchlit streets lined with spectators. Bikila makes his move with half a kilometer to go on the Appian Way, cruising to the finish under the Arch of Constantine. He’s hoisted aloft, the first sub-Saharan to win a gold medal, a triumphant Imperial guardsman at the seat of an ancient empire. It’s a quintessential Olympic moment, and captured marvelously by the Luce crew.
Now the Hard Part
The big problem with this film, seen in 2019, is its predictable deployment of hopelessly obvious sexist and racist viewpoints. Rudolph’s triple gold performance is “the festival of the Black Pearl.” The athletes in the women’s throwing events have their bodies ogled by the camera, measurements spoken aloud by the narrator. At the field hockey final (“as usual played by India and Pakistan”) the camera surveys the spectators in their traditional clothing just as much as the action on the field, while the narrator alludes to Rudyard Kipling stories. There are other moments, and while they’re absolutely nothing like what we’ll eventually see in the 1936 films, they certainly jump out at the modern viewer.
LW: I understand wanting to be authentic to the original films, but there are ways to address historic portrayals of racism and sexism. I’m always disappointed when people take the easy way out on important matters.
DW: We’re going to keep running into these issues as we work our way through the collection, and it’s an interesting and important discussion. As we’ll see, the instances in this film are both not unique and also not the most egregious examples. I think watching a work of the past inherently implies that there will be uncomfortable moments. For me, each Olympic Games—and its film—is a time capsule of sport and society, and learning how both have progressed is one of the fascinating things about the whole endeavor.
Problems aside, all of this comes together to render a feeling that this is a living event, vibrant in a landscape with huge numbers of people from around the world enjoying it. A tight focus on competitions and results alone misses half the story at the Olympics. It’s a great pleasure to watch a film like this, one that takes the viewer back in time in a way that shares a meaningful experience.
The Grand Olympics delivers a lighthearted look at a colossal sporting event at the dawn of the modern era. Everything in the filmmaking arsenal comes together here to make an engaging, trim presentation. It’s a film with personality and a joyous point of view, a goofy and earnest celebration of sport and humanity in all its wonderful weirdness. Watch it and be transported to a time long past, yet filled with so many recognizable markers of our own time.
Rome 1960 by David Maraniss is essential reading for anyone interested in these Games!
Purchases made through this and all iTunes/Apple Books links on the site help support the blog.
Unless otherwise noted, all film screenshots are from Criterion’s 100 Years of Olympic Films Blu-ray box set.