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Blu-ray Review: Criterion's "100 Years of Olympic Films: 1912-2012"

When it was announced a few months ago that the Criterion Collection, the home video company dedicated to presenting the most important and culturally significant films from around the world, was going to be putting out a massive box set dedicated to chronicling the history of the modern Olympic Games, my reaction was more skeptical than anything else. Granted, my personal interest in the Olympics in general has admittedly never been exceptionally high—the only events that I ever try to catch are curling and women’s soccer—but I failed to see how such a set could possibly appeal to anyone other than the kind of Olympic obsessives who record as many events as they possibly can and then spend the years between competitions rewatching them (my brother, in other words.) And yet, having gone through the mammoth “100 Years Of Olympic Films: 1912-2012,” I have to admit that Criterion has succeeded by producing a huge, always fascinating package that not only presents viewers with a collection of some of the most famous moments of athletic prowess ever seen but also offers an eye-opening look at how both the Olympics and cinema would evolve over the course of a century.

Just the basic stats surrounding this package are enough to blow the minds of most viewers. The set offers no fewer than 53 films chronicling 41 editions of the Olympic Games that are spread out over 32 Blu-rays or 43 DVDs, making it the largest single collection in Criterion’s history. The set is the culmination of a 20-year-long project dedicated to preserving the official Olympic films, an effort that would involve digging through archives, studios and libraries throughout the world for the various films, either the original camera negatives or first-generation intermediates in most cases. Once acquired, they were all restored, with scratches and other flaws digitally removed, and scanned at either 2K or 4K resolution. (“Olympic Glory,” a chronicle of the 1998 Nagano Winter Games that was originally presented in IMAX, was given an 8K scan.) For the films that were made during the silent era, new scores were created by composers Maud Nelissen, Donald Sosin and Frido ter Beek to accompany them. More information on the entire restoration project is included in the 216-page hardcover book that accompanies the set and which also includes a critical overview of the films by Peter Cowie. a letter from IOC President Thomas Bach and hundreds of photographs covering the entire history of the Games. 

Watching the films allows viewers to once again experience some of the most legendary moments in athletic history. “The Olympic Games in Paris 1924” gives us a glimpse of British runners Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell, whose gold medal-winning triumphs at the games would later be celebrated in the Oscar-winning “Chariots of Fire” (1981). “Olympia,Leni Riefenstahl’s two-part epic look at the 1936 competition in Berlin, presents Jesse Owens’ track-and-field triumphs that were all the sweeter for occurring right under the nose of Adolph Hitler. Skier Jean-Claude Killy’s domination of the 1968 Games in Grenoble is a focal point of the two films “13 Days in France” and “Snows of Grenoble.” Of course, arguably the most famous Olympic moment of all time—the U.S. hockey teams shocking upset victory over the theoretically superior Soviet team during the semifinals in Lake Placid in 1980—is the high point of “Olympic Spirit.” For fans of the Olympics, these moments are practically etched in the mind but since these films oftentimes utilize footage different from what is usually seen in highlight reels, watching these presentations is almost like experiencing them again for the first time. Hell, even I found myself getting caught up in rewatching the 1980 hockey footage despite having already theoretically seen enough takes on it over the years to last me a lifetime.

Cineastes with little to no working knowledge in athletics per se will also find a lot of what is presented here to be of interest, as the set happens to cover a couple of the most famous and celebrated sports documentaries ever made. The most famous—not to mention notorious—is the aforementioned “Olympia,” in which Riefenstahl, with the full resources of Germany’s Ministry of Propaganda at her disposal, shot more than a million feet of film that combined actual event footage with some highly stylized recreations into a work that, like much of Riefenstahl’s filmography, is as cinematically extraordinary as it is morally and ethically dubious. With the 1964 Summer Olympics being held in Tokyo, the Japanese government decided to produce their own film to chronicle what they planned on being their reintroduction to the world following WW II. After their first choice, Akira Kurosawa, demanded too much control over the project, they went to Kon Ichikawa, the acclaimed director of such international hits as “Fires on the Plain” and “The Burmese Harp,” instead. The result, “Tokyo Olympiad” (pictured above) is generally regarded as one of the great sports movies of all time for its combination of stunning visual splendor and Ichikawa’s decision to focus more on the personalities of the athletes he was covering rather than the results of their events. Alas, this take did not endear Ichikawa to his producers, who took his 170-minute film and chopped it down to 93 for its release abroad. (Needless to say, the version seen here is a restored version of the 170-minute cut and is accompanied by a second film of the events, “Sensation of the Century.”) Eight years later, Ichikawa would be one of eight international filmmakers, including Claude Lelouch, Arthur Penn, John Schlesinger, Milos Forman and Mai Zetterling, hired to make short films of the 1972 Munich Games for a feature entitled “Visions of Eight.” And while he didn’t actually direct “The Everlasting Flame,” the chronicle of the 2008 Beijing Games, celebrated filmmaker Zhang Yimou does play a key role in it during the sequences observing him as he designs and stages the elaborate Opening Ceremony, a spectacle so dazzling that it still puts most special effects-heavy blockbusters of recent vintage to shame.

As mentioned earlier, the history of the modern Olympic Games covers roughly the same period of the history of cinema itself and to watch these films is to get a subtle lesson in just how the art and craft of filmmaking has developed over the course of 100 years. The very first film, “The Games of the V Olympiad Stockholm, 1912,” a compilation of footage that is the earliest still-surviving record of the Olympics, is not much to speak of from a stylistic standpoint—oftentimes little more than planting a camera in front of the events and grinding away—but over the course of the next few films, the camera movements get a little fancier and the advent of sound finally arrives for the 1936 Games. (There are no films here representing any of the 1932 Games.) Color photography is introduced in “XIVth Olympiad: The Glory of Sport,” which dealt with the 1948 London Games and subsequent films would employ any number of visual tricks—split-screen, artful slow motion and the like—to help give a modern feel to the proceedings. This would pretty much hit its zenith with “Olympic Glory,” which covered the events of the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano with IMAX cameras to give the proceedings a larger-than-life feel that can still be felt even on the comparatively reduced dimensions of a television screen. In recent years, the films have been shot on video and while that no doubt makes things easier from a production standpoint, the images just aren’t as striking as the earlier ones captured on film—those felt like movies whereas the latter-day efforts just feel like television. 

So of the 53 films available in this set, which are the ones that are most obviously worth checking out? Obviously, the big titles like “Olympia,” “Tokyo Olympiad” and “Visions of Eight” have managed to stand the test of time and are especially thrilling to watch in these new restorations. “The Games of the V Olympiad Stockholm 1912” is a wonderful time capsule that takes viewers back to a time when the Olympics were like before they became influenced by everything from international strife to oppressive corporate sponsorship. “The White Stadium,” which presents the 1928 Winter Games in St. Mortiz is a personal favorite of mine as it is the only film in the entire set with a chapter dedicated solely to the glory that is curling. “Marathon,Carlos Saura’s take on the 1992 Barcelona Games is interesting for the way that it does away with narration altogether for a soundtrack consisting almost entirely of the natural sounds augmented by music by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Angelo Badalamenti and for how Saura has assembled the film in a manner emulating the event that gives it its title. Those who have seen the wonderful “I, Tonya,” the off-beat biopic of Tonya Harding with a startling effective performance by Margot Robbie in the central role, will want to get a look at “Lillehammer ’94, 16 Days of Glory” to see its take on the entire Harding-Nancy Kerrigan contretemps. Perhaps the strangest of all the films collected here is “White Rock,” in which James Coburn takes viewers on a tour of the 1976 Winter Games in Innsbruck and even tries his hand at such events as the biathlon and the luge. If you ever wanted to see Our Man Flint dressed up in one of those skintight snow suits, this is your chance.

“100 Years Of Olympic Films: 1912-2012” is obviously not an impulse buy by any stretch of the imagination and its sheer heft, both in its size and in its price tag, may scare away a lot of potential customers. I understand that thinking but it must be said that, in terms of what has been gathered here as well as its presentation, this set more than justifies itself on both counts—the closest thing that I can think of to a flaw is that it just does not have nearly enough curling for my tastes. For hardcore fans of the Olympics, it is, of course a must that will no doubt help them to get through those long stretches between Olympic competitions. In addition to that, it should also prove to have great value to historians who can watch these films and, using the Olympics as a prism, observe the ways in which the world changed, both for better and worse, over the course of an especially eventful century.

To order your copy of Criterion Collection's "100 Years of Olympic Films," click here. 

The Films

Stockholm 1912 The Games of the V Olympiad Stockholm, 1912 (dir. Adrian Wood • 2016 • 170 minutes)

Chamonix 1924 The Olympic Games Held at Chamonix in 1924 (dir. Jean de Rovera • 1924 • 37 minutes)

Paris 1924 The Olympic Games as They Were Practiced in Ancient Greece (dir. Jean de Rovera • 1924 • 8 minutes) The Olympic Games in Paris 1924 (dir. Jean de Rovera • 1924 • 174 minutes)

St. Moritz 1928 The White Stadium (dirs. Arnold Fanck, Othmar Gurtner • 1928 • 124 minutes)

Amsterdam 1928 The IX Olympiad in Amsterdam (dir. unknown • 1928 • 251 minutes) The Olympic Games, Amsterdam 1928 (dir. Wilhelm Prager; supervisor Jules Perel • 1928 • 192 minutes)

Garmisch-Partenkirchen 1936 Youth of the World (dir. Carl Junghans • 1936 • 38 minutes)

Berlin 1936 Olympia Part One: Festival of the Nations (dir. Leni Riefenstahl • 1938 • 127 minutes) Olympia Part Two: Festival of Beauty (dir. Leni Riefenstahl • 1938 • 103 minutes)

St. Moritz 1948 Fight Without Hate (dir. André Michel • 1948 • 91 minutes)

London 1948 XIVth Olympiad: The Glory of Sport (dir. Castleton Knight • 1948 • 138 minutes)

Oslo 1952 The VI Olympic Winter Games, Oslo 1952 (dir. Tancred Ibsen • 1952 • 103 minutes)

Helsinki 1952 Where the World Meets (dir. Hannu Leminen • 1952 • 101 minutes) Gold and Glory (dir. Hannu Leminen • 1953 • 97 minutes) Memories of the Olympic Summer of 1952 (dir. unknown • 1954 • 50 minutes)

Cortina d’Ampezzo 1956 White Vertigo (dir. Giorgio Ferroni • 1956 • 96 minutes)

Melbourne/Stockholm 1956 Olympic Games, 1956 (dir. Peter Whitchurch • 1956 • 60 minutes) The Melbourne Rendez-vous (dir. René Lucot • 1957 • 106 minutes) Alain Mimoun (dir. Louis Gueguen • 1959 • 24 minutes) The Horse in Focus (dir. unknown • 1956 • 16 minutes)

Squaw Valley 1960 People, Hopes, Medals (dir. Heribert Meisel • 1960 • 93 minutes)

Rome 1960 The Grand Olympics (dir. Romolo Marcellini • 1961 • 147 minutes)

Innsbruck 1964 IX Olympic Winter Games, Innsbruck 1964 (dir. Theo Hörmann • 1964 • 90 minutes)

Tokyo 1964 Tokyo Olympiad (dir. Kon Ichikawa • 1965 • 170 minutes) Sensation of the Century (prod. Taguchi Suketaro, supervisor Nobumasa Kawamoto • 1966 • 156 minutes)

Grenoble 1968 13 Days in France (dirs. Claude Lelouch, François Reichenbach • 1968 • 112 minutes) Snows of Grenoble (dirs. Jacques Ertaud, Jean-Jacques Languepin • 1968 • 97 minutes)

Mexico City 1968 The Olympics in Mexico (dir. Alberto Isaac • 1969 • 160 minutes)

Sapporo 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics (dir. Masahiro Shinoda • 1972 • 167 minutes)

Munich 1972 Visions of Eight (dirs. Miloš Forman, Kon Ichikawa, Claude Lelouch, Yuri Ozerov, Arthur Penn, Michael Pfleghar, John Schlesinger, Mai Zetterling • 1973 • 110 minutes)

Innsbruck 1976 White Rock (dir. Tony Maylam • 1977 • 77 minutes)

Montreal 1976 Games of the XXI Olympiad (dirs. Jean-Claude Labrecque, Jean Beaudin, Marcel Carrière, Georges Dufaux • 1977 • 118 minutes)

Lake Placid 1980 Olympic Spirit (dirs. Drummond Challis, Tony Maylam • 1980 • 27 minutes)

Moscow 1980 O Sport, You Are Peace! (dir. Yuri Ozerov • 1981 • 149 minutes)

Sarajevo 1984 A Turning Point (dir. Kim Takal • 1984 • 82 minutes)

Los Angeles 1984 16 Days of Glory (dir. Bud Greenspan • 1986 • 284 minutes)

Calgary 1988 Calgary ’88: 16 Days of Glory (dir. Bud Greenspan • 1989 • 202 minutes)

Seoul 1988 Seoul 1988 (dir. Lee Kwang-soo • 1989 • 139 minutes) Hand in Hand (dir. Im Kwon-taek • 1989 • 119 minutes) Beyond All Barriers (dir. Lee Ji-won • 1989 • 92 minutes)

Albertville 1992 One Light, One World (dirs. Joe Jay Jalbert, R. Douglas Copsey • 1992 • 104 minutes)

Barcelona 1992 Marathon (dir. Carlos Saura • 1993 • 130 minutes)

Lillehammer 1994 Lillehammer ’94: 16 Days of Glory (dir. Bud Greenspan • 1994 • 209 minutes)

Atlanta 1996 Atlanta’s Olympic Glory (dir. Bud Greenspan • 1997 • 206 minutes)

Nagano 1998 Nagano ’98 Olympics: Stories of Honor and Glory (dir. Bud Greenspan • 1998 • 119 minutes) Olympic Glory (dir. Kieth Merrill • 1999 • 42 minutes)

Sydney 2000 Sydney 2000: Stories of Olympic Glory (dir. Bud Greenspan • 2001 • 117 minutes)

Salt Lake City 2002 Salt Lake City 2002: Bud Greenspan’s Stories of Olympic Glory (dir. Bud Greenspan • 2003 • 119 minutes)

Athens 2004 Bud Greenspan’s Athens 2004: Stories of Olympic Glory (dir. Bud Greenspan • 2005 • 96 minutes)

Turin 2006 Bud Greenspan’s Torino 2006: Stories of Olympic Glory (dir. Bud Greenspan • 2007 • 88 minutes)

Beijing 2008 The Everlasting Flame (dir. Gu Jun • 2010 • 101 minutes)

Vancouver 2010 Bud Greenspan Presents Vancouver 2010: Stories of Olympic Glory (prods. Bud Greenspan, Nancy Beffa • 2010 • 116 minutes)

London 2012 First (dir. Caroline Rowland • 2012 • 109 minutes)

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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