Melbourne via Stockholm and Algiers

The Olympics appeared for the first time in the Southern Hemisphere at the 1956 Summer Games in Melbourne, Australia. It was the first Games to take place in two different countries, because Australian quarantine laws prevented equestrian horses from making the trip. Stockholm, Sweden stepped up to host a week of equestrian events.

What this means for us is that there should be a film for the main event in Melbourne and one for the auxiliary equestrian games in Stockholm. As luck would have it, there are actually two full-length films set in Australia, plus a bonus feature on a single athlete.

This week we’re going to start with the Stockholm film, The Horse in Focus, and Alain Mimoun (or Mimoun, Champion de France).

A Twist on a Familiar Setting

The Horse in Focus

Director Unknown

The Horse in Focus is, essentially, a short little field report on the goings-on at Stockholm. From a formal perspective it’s not much different than those early silent Olympic films. Cameras are set up a respectful distance from the action, record it, and show it to us. The film plays like a very lovely newsreel. The events themselves—at least to a viewer not overly familiar with equestrian sport like myself—are somewhat nondescript.

LW: I made Don watch the entire film first to ensure no horses were injured, because I cannot handle watching a horse go down. Even after his OK, I still spent the movie with my hands over my eyes.

DW: For me, there are three fun bits to this little film.

First, there is a fully-realized torch relay, just like at the main event in Melbourne, but what makes it special is that the entire relay is on horseback. Even the cauldron itself is lit by a mounted rider, while the athletes who paraded into the stadium for the Opening Ceremony watch from their own horses. It’s neat to see this different spin on the usual opening. It must have been a nice consolation for the athletes, who missed out on the typical Olympic experience.

Second, the filmmakers proudly show not only King Gustaf and Queen Louise of Sweden, but also Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip of Great Britain. The Swedish narrator comments on the progress of Queen Elizabeth’s horse Countryman III, who would secure a gold medal in team eventing with Bertie Hill riding.

Last, the setting is the beautiful Stockholm Olympic Stadium. This venue was purpose-built for the 1912 Games, and is still in use today. Having watched the 1912 film (we haven’t written about it yet!) it was kind of a thrill to see the same venue appear here—and this time, in fabulous mid-century color.

LW: The stadium was beautiful and full! I could not believe how many attendees there were.

A Marathon Across Time

Alain Mimoun

Louis Gueguen

DW: A huge leap lands us directly in the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the men’s marathon. The star of this quirky little dramatized documentary is Alain Mimoun (FRA). Mimoun ran his first competitive marathon in Melbourne, and his victory must have been quite the sensation in France. I can’t figure how this film could possibly have been made otherwise! It’s weird and wonderful and by no means a small undertaking. Released in 1959, it clearly took some significant production to develop.

LW: Cutting in here—this was such an odd film. Odd, entertaining, and wonderful.

DW: In the Bud Greenspan era, we’ve gotten used to a mix of competition, interviews, and “slice of life” scenes back home to help humanize subjects. It’s all pretty rote, even when it’s done exceedingly well. We know how it’s going to go. But now, in Alain Mimoun, we see something similar in form yet entirely different in substance, and it prefigures Greenspan by almost 30 years.

I’m going to give you a basic rundown of everything that happens here, because there’s no other way to explain it.

The film starts at the start—the marathon in Melbourne kicks off while the opening credits appear over the athletes. They leave the stadium to a jazz score. We are introduced to Mimoun, the race quickly gets to the halfway point, and then everything changes.

Suddenly we are back in Algiers, as a young Mimoun (portrayed by a child actor) goes about his schoolday routine, running and playing, establishing his athletic talent. We soon revisit the adult Mimoun pounding out the miles in Melbourne. Narration surmises his thoughts as he runs, and we bounce back to his military days, when his running talent was discovered. Back to Melbourne, with pain and suffering on the course. This recalls his time during the war, fighting and wounded at Monte Cassino. A reenactment involves a whole platoon of soldiers and medics. His wound is terrible, but a chance artillery bombardment saves him from the field hospital’s plan of amputation. Mimoun convalesces back in France (with bandaging suddenly on the other foot?). His rehab quickly gives way to a first jog. Then straight back to the race, a close focus on the athlete’s face, surely reminiscing about how far he’s come from … his days as a waiter. Sure, why not?

We see his running career begin to develop with some archival footage, progressing to a spot in the national sports center. A masseuse works his legs, which of course gives way to a closeup of those legs, now straining on the course in Melbourne. While other runners stop for refreshment, our gallant hero Mimoun runs on for his country, and his wife, and—his new daughter! So of course we get a reenactment of the scene from the night before the race, when he received word of his daughter’s birth via telegram in the Olympic Village. Back to the race, his stride now “strong and sure,” he enters the stadium to deafening applause. The jazz soundtrack returns, and Mimoun is triumphant.

Narration of this piece is all French, and all hushed whispers, reverent, celebrating this singular athlete’s grit and excellence. If you’ve ever watched the Tour de France, listening to the announcers talk about the riders’ suffering and cracking, well, it’s kind of like that, but quiet and far more flowery. It’s so weird, and begs some questions. What the heck was the budget for this thing? Who hired all the extras? What were the auditions like for the Algerian schoolkids? What was the pitch meeting like where they decided to make it? Man, to be a fly on the wall when this was hatched.

I’m only going to make two criticisms of this film, because it’s just so charming. The first is the goof about the foot bandage—seriously, Alain, you know which foot took the shrapnel, make sure the bandage is on the correct one, damn the director. I do think—or hope—that one of the pieces of film was reversed or something, and either it was missed or somebody though he looked better jogging to the right than the left. The second thing is that in the service of Mimoun’s heroic image the film conveniently leaves out the fact that Mimoun won silver in the 10,000 at London 1948 and both the 10,000 and 5,000 at Helsinki 1952. Maybe that was assumed to be common knowledge at the time, or maybe it played better as the marathon rookie shocking the field, but he was certainly not unknown.

Anyway, it’s fun, bursting with personality, and a nice change of pace after the comparatively drab Stockholm equestrian piece. We can’t wait to get on to the main event in Melbourne next. We’ll see Mimoun in color this time, receive another visit from Prince Philip, and get a good look at booming young Australia, eager to welcome the world’s attention for the first time.

Unless otherwise noted, all film screenshots are from Criterion’s 100 Years of Olympic Films Blu-ray box set.

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