JIM THORPE: ALL-AMERICAN (1951)

  • Director: Michael Curtiz
  • Writers: Everett Freeman and Douglas Morrow, based on the autobiography by Jim Thorpe
  • Starring: Burt Lancaster, Charles Bickford, Phyllis Thaxter, Dick Wesson, Jack Bighead, and Billy Gray
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

The problem with making movies based on real life is that real life doesn’t always conform to a three-act structure. So filmmakers are often left with two choices: either force the actual events to fit into the specific boxes of storytelling (what usually happens), or make a movie that is just completely all over the place, where a bunch of things tend to just happen without fitting into some big dramatic arc. Well, Jim Thorpe: All-American is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the latter. There’s no big, dramatic ending, and the closest things get to being happy at the end is that it’s implied Jim Thorpe didn’t drink himself to death in despair, which is pretty much where the movie feels like it’s heading for a while. In reality, he basically did, at least the drinking part, though to cut the movie some slack he didn’t actually pass away until two years after it came out.

Other than that, the movie does a fairly decent job, especially for an old Hollywood studio system biopic, of telling a fairly representative story of Jim Thorpe’s life. Burt Lancaster stars as the famous athlete (I think he’s wearing makeup to make his face darker, though it’s hard to tell in black and white), who he portrays for much of the movie as a strong, silent type. Thorpe was a member of the Sac and Fox Native American tribe, born on a reservation in Oklahoma. He went to college at Carlisle Indian School in central Pennsylvania, at a time when being an “Indian” remained heavily frowned upon in much of America. The story (as depicted in this movie) goes that he was discovered as an athlete when, after casually watching several members of the school track team miss while attempting to clear five feet nine inches in the high jump, he tried it himself in street clothes and made it on the first try. Thorpe turned out to be a natural athlete, dominating not only in track but in football, baseball, lacrosse, and even winning the 1912 Intercollegiate Ballroom Dancing Championship, an episode that is sadly left out of the movie.

In 1912, Thorpe won two gold medals at the Olympics in Stockholm, in both the pentathlon and decathlon, and also finished fourth and seventh in the specialized high jump and long jump, respectively. The King of Sweden gave him a special trophy, proclaiming, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world!” To which the taciturn Thorpe is alleged to have replied, “Thanks King.” Unfortunately, it soon came out that Thorpe had been paid a pittance to play semi-pro baseball in North Carolina, hoping to make some extra cash during school, a big no-no at a time when amateurism in both the Olympics and college sports was strictly enforced (I could write a long essay on that one, from which I will refrain here). It appears that he was so unworldly that he had no idea this was against the rules. Anyway, he was officially stripped of all his medals and trophies, and soon after went to play first pro baseball for the New York Giants and then, once the NFL was founded, professional football.

As shown in the movie, Thorpe is a loving father whose son, Jim Jr., dies suddenly in the 1918 flu pandemic while he is off on a football road trip. The movie blames this for the dissolution of Thorpe’s marriage to Margaret (Phyllis Thaxter), and his (more implied than seen) subsequent descent into alcoholism. In the movie, he is taken by his old coach Pop Warner (Charles Bickford) to the Opening Ceremony of the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, where he determines he wants to try again to coach, and then seen teaching some little kids how to play football just before the movie ends. In real life, he had trouble holding down non-sports jobs, and actually helped support his family (he had two subsequent marriages and several more children) by acting in Hollywood movies, frequently as an Indian Chief in various Westerns. After he died in 1953, his family, desperate for money, “sold” his remains to the small town of Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, which was looking for a tourist attraction, on the condition that the town change its name to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, a name it retains today.

So you can see how this story doesn’t quite lend itself to Hollywood, but this movie does its level best. It is narrated by Bickford (a three-time Oscar nominee) as the legendary coach Warner, who is supposedly giving a speech at an awards dinner in Thorpe’s honor. As a framing device, this doesn’t quite work, as most of the lines Bickford is given make absolutely no sense in the context of giving an awards speech. At one point he’s basically just announcing a college football game. Lancaster is good in the title role, which requires both awkwardness and occasional bursts of anger and emotion. The director of this movie, Michael Curtiz, is probably the thing most likely to get it noticed today. A long-time studio stalwart, Curtiz’s other films included The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca, and Yankee Doodle Dandy, among many others. I’d describe his direction here as “workmanlike,” never edging towards showiness in the slightest. You can tell the budget was limited by the relative absence of crowd shots, which leads to many sporting events, such as the 1912 Olympics, being mostly shot from a low angle, with Lancaster surrounded by sky. This conveniently leaves out the stands, and the extras they would have needed to fill them in the days before CGI.

Without the modern methods of recreating sporting events, Jim Thorpe: All-American feels like a melodrama without a payoff. To put it in the context of another genre, imagine Bohemian Rhapsody if they didn’t show the concert at Wembley, instead cutting to the boys walking off stage congratulating each other on a great show. That’s sort of what this movie feels like a lot of the time. One thing that did surprise me was that, from a modern perspective, this 1951 movie’s heart seems to be in the right place when it comes to depicting the struggles of Native Americans. Thorpe angrily believes that he loses out on one coaching job because he’s not white, and more than once states that he promised his father he’d stay in school so he “doesn’t end up selling beaded blankets at the railway station.” Which isn’t to say it’s perfect from that perspective, but just that it’s trying its best. It is a bit jarring when, at one point, another student at Carlisle (who is also supposed to be Native American) asks him if he “speaks Indian.” Because… that’s a language, I guess?  There’s also a weird bit at the 1932 Olympics where Warner points out that the Vice President, Charles Curtis, is an Indian. I did not know this, and I have a feeling that a lot of people at the time didn’t either, but Curtis was actually ⅜ Native American. What that has to do with Jim Thorpe, however, I have no idea.

Back in the real world, Jim Thorpe’s medals were restored in 1983, 30 years after his death, with professionalism among Olympic athletes becoming de rigueur and the International Olympic Committee, for once, recognizing obvious good publicity. This would be a natural ending or framing device for a modern day movie about Thorpe, which I think would be cool to see. As things are, this is the movie we have, and I find it more intellectually interesting than actually “entertaining” or “good.” It may be worthwhile to compare this movie, which decides to hew relatively closely to actual events at the expense of anything approaching real movie structure, with Cool Runnings, which completely chucks any relationship to what actually happened out the window in an effort to make a popular movie. I think there’s a tendency to say that the former approach is the better one, but the reality is more complicated, and there’s no question in my mind that, of these two, most people are going to enjoy Cool Runnings more.

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