Captures an era obsessed with individual achievements
Beginning with the race to find Dr. Livingstone and ending with the first man on the moon, the century from 1870 to 1970 was obsessed by milestones in individual achievement. Advances in technology and scientific knowledge allowed mankind to attempt feats previously thought impossible and the advent of speedy and reliable transport opened up new worlds to the general population.
Competing against each other in an emerging market for mass communication, the popular newspapers recorded these phenomena and stoked up interest in their own country's successes in order prove their imperialist superiority.
The era peaked between 1948 and 1960. This was also the height of the Cold War when international affairs were dominated by the nuclear stalemate between the opposing blocs and was just after the Second World War when secondary powers like Britain and France also believed that they were serious players on the world stage. However, as most countries had had enough recent experience of blasting each other to bits, jingoism had to find another outlet and the press and the new medium of television obliged by coming up with their headline heroes.
One by one, the barriers fell. Yeager broke the sound barrier, Hillery and Tenzing conquered Everest just in time for the coronation, Gagarin flew into orbit, Roger Maris slugged his 60 homers and Brazil, inspired by 17 year old Pelé, assembled the most awesome soccer team ever for the 1958 World Cup. The longer it took to reach the milestone, the greater the mystique and, when all around was crashing down, the stubborn resistances of the four-minute mile became an object of fascination, first of all to athletes and coaches, and then to the media moguls and the general public.
If there ever was an opportunity to rewrite history, this surely was one. Mile running had reached a new level during the war when, in neutral Sweden, Gunder Haag and Arne Andersen had sliced the record six or seven times between them. But, when Haag departed the scene amid allegations of professionalism after hitting 4 minutes 1.4 seconds in 1945, his mark stood for another eight years.
This is the period in which The Four Minute Mile is set. Not only was there an easily-understood summit to be reached but repeated failure to do so had fostered a belief that man had finally found the limit to his abilities. And this was also a time when track and field was governed by the original Olympic ethos of strictly amateur participation and dominated, particularly in middle-distance running, by gentlemen athletes. The film does capture these themes effectively, showing the difference between the Old World Corinthian ideals of Roger Bannister, New World interlopers John Landy and Wes Santee and Denis Johansson's Scandinavian passion for the sport. Hovering in the background are the coaches, the eccentric Percy Cerruti and the scientifically rigorous Fritz Stämpfl, as well as the news-hounds and the blazered toffs of the governing bodies.
Period is also faithfully represented through the shoestring facilities which would amaze modern athletes (e.g. the barrack-room accommodation at the Empire Games in Vancouver or Bannister's difficulties in getting a track to race on in London). And even though budget probably prevented the a more comprehensive recreation of events like the 1952 Olympic Games, the use of television, newsreel and radio commentary is effective.
The acting and scripting, however, is patchy. Richard Huw's portrayal of Bannister is superb, and the mixture of drive, Oxford University elitism, English understatement, shy awkwardness, private torment on the road to perfection, unquestioning belief in British superiority and guilt at any infraction of his sense of "fair play" resurrects a type of character that once dominated sport but has been extinct for over a generation. If you want to understand what the mindset of those public officials imbued with a sense of duty who ran many Western European countries during the first half of the 20th century, you could do worse than study this performance.
However, apart from Michael York's capture of Stämpfl's polite pre-war Viennese geniality, the other characters fail to make a strong enough impression of their own. Sure, some like Adrian Rawlins as Chris Chataway and Robert Burbage as Chris Brasher who, as Bannister's pace setters, are foils anyway but the real conflicts of the story could have been better developed by more forceful roles for Landy (Nique Needles) and Santee (John Philbin).
Overall, an excellent sense of time, place and circumstances and, had the supporting roles increased the depth of the plot, it could have been one of the greatest sporting movies ever.
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