Sport on film: Every one a winner?

As Formula 1 movie 'Rush' lines up on the grid, Nicholas Barber assesses the triumphs and disasters of sport on film

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The Independent Culture

The turbo-charged rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda could have been made for the movies. As the world's best drivers jockeyed for position during the 1976 Formula 1 season, there were fast cars, there were explosions, and there were Seventies haircuts. And now, in Rush, the new film by the writer (Peter Morgan) and director (Ron Howard) of Frost/Nixon, there's Olivia Wilde, too.

Historically speaking, though, motor-racing films – Days of Thunder (1990), Driven (2001), Cars and Talladega Nights (2006) are less likely to be super-cars than old bangers, probably because you can't hear the dialogue over all that ear-splitting engine noise, and you can't see the emotion on faces encased in helmets. Several other sports have to be dismissed as one-or-two film wonders: I'm thinking of cricket (Lagaan, 2001), rugby (This Sporting Life, 1963), tennis (School for Scoundrels, 1960), bowling (The Big Lebowski, 1998) –and Dodgeball (2004). And with all due deference to Chariots of Fire (1981) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), it's hard to build a drama around people running as quickly as they can. To find out which sports lead to the best movies, see our league table below.

The champ

Boxing: The sport responsible for some of cinema's funniest sequences (City Lights, 1931), as well as some of its most tragic (Million Dollar Baby, 2004). And while Raging Bull (1980) may seem to be unbeatable, that doesn't stop others getting into the ring. Some – Cinderella Man (2005), The Fighter (2010) – made a decent, ahem, fist of it.

The contenders

Baseball: If anything, rounders-with-hats is an even more central part of American mythology than rugby-with-helmets, hence Hollywood's obsession with baseball. Even if you discount Kevin Costner's trilogy – Bull Durham (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), For Love of the Game (1999) – you're still left with the likes of The Bad News Bears (2005), A League of their Own (1992) and Moneyball (2011). Baseball conjures up both the nostalgic, down-home simplicity of chucking a frayed ball around the yard with the glamour of a mega-bucks industry. Much of the play involves standing still, so it's easier for actors to look as if they can play baseball than any other sport.

American football: Seen from this side of the Pond, American football seems insanely uncinematic: it's got far too many players, most of them indistinguishable under their padding, and the bamboozling rules could have been devised as a joke on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. But from a transatlantic perspective, American football represents teamwork and perseverence and other apple-pie virtues, so there it is in The Freshman (1990), Horse Feathers (1932), Any Given Sunday (1999), Friday Night Lights (2004), The Blind Side (2009) and many more. American football also involves a fair amount of extreme violence, which is always useful in a film. What's more, as in basketball, play stops every few seconds, so there's plenty of time for pep talks and confrontations.

The also-rans

Golf: The quintessential slobs-vs-snobs sport. It's so bound up with images of exclusive country clubs, inadvisable jumpers, and manicured fairways that you've only to put someone vaguely down-at-heel on to the green and you've got instant conflict. Admittedly, some iterations of this formula (Tin Cup, 1996, and Caddyshack, 1980) are better than others (Who's Your Caddy?, 2007, and Happy Gilmore 1996).

Football: It's difficult to talk about footballing films without chortling at the memory of Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine in the notorious Escape to Victory (1981). The trouble is that while footballers also have to be professional actors, so that they can pretend to be mortally wounded whenever they're tackled, professional actors are rarely convincing as footballers. But, pace Bill Shankly, footie does lend itself to comedy, as proven by the glorious kickabouts in Gregory's Girl (1981) and Kes (1969), as well as the success of Bend it Like Beckham (2002) and The Damned United (2009).

'Rush' is released on Friday