Football on film: More failure than success

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They share many qualities: vivid characters, compelling drama and huge public interest. Yet while there have been great films about almost every subject - including many different sports - there has yet to be a truly great football film. As 'The Damned United' goes on general release, Glenn Moore examines a cultural conundrum

Undeterred by decades of failure, the film industry has again attempted to produce a major movie about football. The Damned United, a dramatisation of David Peace's book about Brian Clough (as played by Michael Sheen), hits the multiplexes tomorrow.

The film examines Clough's character through his relationships with his assistant, Peter Taylor, and the England manager, Don Revie, during Clough's reigns at Derby County and, as Revie's successor, Leeds.

As football films go it is relatively successful, but the flaws are the usual ones associated with football on film. The players are unconvincing and the playing scenes, while better than most, look odd.

It was ever thus. Think of Sylvester Stallone's performance as a goalkeeper in Escape to Victory, Sean Bean in When Saturday Comes, or Ian McShane in Yesterday's Hero. But the problem is not just the simple fact that few footballers can act, and even fewer actors can play football to an acceptable standard.

For The Damned United semi-professional players were used as extras, and in some of the lesser roles, including Stuart Gray, a former Celtic and Reading full-back, who played his father, former Leeds United winger Eddie. After casting they underwent a fortnight's training under the instruction of Simon Clifford, owner and manager of non-League Garforth, and briefly part of Clive Woodward's staff at Southampton.

Clifford, who studied tapes of 1970s matches, admitted: "If the football doesn't look right the whole film can fall flat." That much was recognised by the film's producer Andy Harries. "Part of the trick is to not feature football too much," he said. "We're playing a lot of it off reaction shots off Clough and Taylor. Through their reactions you know what's happening on the pitch."

Nevertheless, some football scenes are unavoidable and, despite all the training and preparation, they look odd. Why? Sir Alan Parker, chairman of the UK Film Council and director of Midnight Express, Pink Floyd The Wall, Angel Heart, The Commitments and many others, and a regular at the Emirates to watch Arsenal, explains it is primarily because, on television and live, we are used to seeing the big picture. Film uses a lot of close-up shots.

"Every time I've ever been asked to do a film about football I say 'no'," he said. "It's an impossibly difficult sport to replicate because football is seen primarily in wide-shot. The excitement unfolds seeing at least four players in one shot. This is very difficult to cheat. The illusion of film is about editing and close-ups.

"The sports that have been successful on film allow for close-up editing. The best example is boxing. Raging Bull succeeds because you throw a punch and you cut to receiving it. With exaggerated sound effects and enough blood it sells the illusion. Same with baseball: you throw the ball, you cut to the batter hitting it – sound effect and the ball is out of the park, even though you haven't seen the contact. American football is the same. You throw, you cut [edit], and you catch. You cut. You run with the ball. Cut. Touch down.

"Our football unfolds differently. When you watch it for real your periphery vision takes in the whole field or at least the part where the ball is. Watching on TV it's always from above, in wide-shot to take in the geography of the play. If a TV director suddenly cut to a close-up of a boot or a close-up of a face during an attack the audience would scream with anger.

"Close-ups are for action replays.

"Because you can't cheat, you can't insert your actors making the plays. Most importantly, the skills cannot be replicated by actors as they can in boxing or baseball.

"So the 'on field' stuff in a soccer movie doesn't ever work. To tell a dramatic story it's got to be about the people involved off the pitch."

Parker adds he has not yet seen The Damned United but was sent the script. "It's written by an excellent screenwriter [Peter Morgan, The Queen, Frost/Nixon]. However, if there are footballing sequences, then they would be down to the director [Tom Hooper], who I believe was not a football fan and had seen few football matches, if any.

"I loved the David Peace book because, as a book, it was wonderful – the characters and football matches are all in your head and hence perfect. On film they can only disappoint."

The solution, said Stan Hey, who wrote the successful TV series The Manageress, and produced the less memorable series All in the Game, is to aim low when it comes to the standard of football a director is seeking to replicate.

Hey said: "The Manageress [which starred Cherie Lunghi as a female manager] was set at a lowly Second Division club, so the players didn't have to be that good. Les Shannon [a former professional player and manager, who had worked on Escape to Victory] cast the players and he was ruthless. Among those he cut because they were not good enough footballers were Jimmy Nesbitt and Robson Green. He then trained them for a month, got them into shape, and had them play friendlies. They became a team."

"In All In The Game [which was loosely based on Gary Lineker's move to Barcelona] the actor was not credible as someone who had cost a multi-million transfer fee."

Clive Walker, the former Chelsea winger who was one of the extras, was more brutal. "The players were all ex-pros or non-league, John Hollins [former Chelsea player and manager] did the choreography, but the 'star' was useless. He couldn't play. We did some scenes at Oxford's ground and we had a simple move set up which ended with the ball being played in to the star, who would take it on the turn then shoot. Everything was fine until his bit. We did take after take. Eventually they used his body double, a non-league player who was filmed from the waist down, for the turn. Even then the star could not do the shot. That ended up with the ball being rolled in by hand for the double. The star just did the celebrating.

"The problem is always the football scenes. People know what the real thing looks like and in films they always look staged."

An even greater problem, for Hey, is the thrilling, unpredictable nature of the real thing. "The fundamental difficulty is trying to create drama which is outscripted by real events. Like Liverpool being 3-0 down in Istanbul, or Arsenal winning the title at Anfield in 1989; you can't write that. Football works best in film when the game is on the margins: Gregory's Girl, Bend it Like Beckham, Kes."

Football appears in only one scene in Kes, but it is arguably the best football film scene of all. Next best might be the kickabout which forms a glorious closing scene in Lukas Moodysson's Together, a Swedish film about life in a commune. In both films the football is peripheral, and deliberately poor quality. The same applies, despite the title, to Bend it like Beckham (which starred Keira Knightley). The game is merely a device to drive the real plot, about an Indian girl whose love of the game brings her into conflict with her cultural traditions. The other football-related film which rates highly in most people's assessments, Gregory's Girl, is a coming-of-age love story in which the twist is that Gregory fancies the girl who's taken his place in the school team.

When it comes to top-flight football, retelling a real story is generally more successful than dramas. As Hey, who scripted Fifa's official 1982 World Cup film, G'Ole!, noted, the truth is hard to beat. Among recent, decent, documentaries Once In A Lifetime was an intriguing look at the brief US soccer boom inspired by the New York Cosmos; The Miracle of Bern was a German dramatisation of their 1954 triumph; in Substitute, film-maker Fred Poulet and French international Vikash Dhorasoo captured the latter's unhappy 2006 World Cup tournament. Initially criticised in the belief that it was a warts-and-all expose of the French squad, it was subsequently recognised as a poignant art movie.

Football's popularity has encouraged increasingly artistic interpretations such as Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, in which cameras tracked Zizou's every move during a Real Madrid match, but ignored the rest of the game. There is a pertinent Swiss film which has professional players taking part in a match while dressed as bankers. Significant moments like goals are illustrated by, for example, a briefcase full of cash falling open. Then there is Sam Taylor-Wood's David. A single, fixed camera films David Beckham sleeping in a Madrid hotel room for 107 minutes, with the only sounds the few Beckham makes in his slumbers. It is a long way from the The Arsenal Stadium Mystery. Suddenly an evening in with a bag of popcorn and the DVD of Escape To Victory becomes an appealing prospect.

What do you think are the best and worst sports films of all time? Have your say in the comments form below...

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