5 August 2018



This is the big budget Hollywood take on the Jesse Owens story, the black athlete who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics. Four gold medals would be an extraordinary feat in itself, but these were the Olympics held in Nazi Germany at the height of Hitler's power, a mere three years before Hitler plunged the world into the darkest war it had ever known up to that point.

The film's length of two-and-a-quarter hours would have been absolutely fine, no problem at all, if the film-makers had done justice to the amazing story they had at their disposal. They turned the story into just another over-long, plodding Hollywood vehicle however. For shame, lol.

They even managed to make it boring in places, and Jesse Owens's story is not boring. It's probably the Number One sports story of all time, goddammit. Let's concentrate on the plot and forget about the tedious, clunky direction for now. Better still, let me just tell you the story as I know it.

The plot starts with Jesse Owens, an immensely promising young track star, going off to Ohio State University. This would have been an amazing achievement for any young man but Jesse was black and encountered unpleasant and ignorant racist attitudes wherever he went, including- but not limited to- the locker-rooms of Ohio State University.

He comes to the attention of washed-up coach Lawrence Snyder, who sees Jesse's enormous potential for running and undertakes to being his coach if Jesse will agree to work his butt off in return. After a few initial wrinkles that need smoothing out between the pair, the two rub along well together and, in no time at all, Jesse becomes a sprinting star.

After a brief, ill-starred affair with another woman, Jesse marries his long-time girlfriend Ruth, who works in a beauty parlour back home and with whom he has a daughter. When he qualifies for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, everyone who knows and loves him is ecstatic for him. There are some major problems on the way, however.

First of all, the American Olympic Committee are divided on whether or not they should send a delegation to the 1936 Games at all. The Nazis are in control of Germany and their racist persecution of the Jews is already becoming known to the outside world. The Nazis aren't overly keen on black people, either.

William Hurt as Committee high-up Jeremiah Mahoney begs that his fellow Committee members vote to keep America out of these particular Games. The purpose of these prestigious Games, with their long and revered history, is to be inclusive. All-inclusive. You can't go leaving out this race of people or that race of people because you don't like the cut of their jib. That's not the Olympic ethos. Boycott the 1936 Games, is his clear message.

Committee member Avery Brundage, played here by Jeremy Irons, is sent over to Germany to meet with Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's odious little club-footed Minister for Propaganda. I've seen some screen Goebbels who looked more like Goebbels than Goebbels himself. This guy looks nothing at all like the Goebbels we know from our history, although he has the poisonous personality down to a T.

The sly, self-serving Avery Brundage strikes a mutually beneficial- beneficial to Brundage's construction company, mainly- business deal together. Germany undertakes to temporarily 'clean up her act' in terms of the persecution of the Jews and other minorities, such as homosexuals, Communists and Roma gypsies. 

Not to mention the people they termed 'asocials,' which was a kind of handy catch-all phrase used to signify the various 'undesirables' they were determined to stamp out. Everyone from prostitutes and petty criminals to people who disagreed with the Nazi ideology could be included in this category, which was very kindly all-inclusive, lol. Most accommodating of the Nazis, I think you'll agree.

They'd temporarily take down their signs that read 'NO JEWS OR DOGS,' signs that aren't any different to the American signs that read 'ALL COLOUREDS TO THE REAR OF BUS.' In
fact, in view of the similarity between the two countries' racial policies, one wonders a little bit at the hypocrisy of America, kicking up a stink at Germany's behaviour when their own wasn't much different. (Sorry, America, you're normally cool and I love you, but this stuff DID happen...!)

Anyway, on foot of Brundage's appallingly self-serving fact-finding mission, the American Olympic Committee voted to opt in to the 1936 Games. Instead of being elated and getting down to some serious training, poor torn Jesse James had the NAACP- the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People- coming personally to his home to beg him to boycott the racist Games. Do it for the black people, Jesse, he was urged. Pressure, much?

After a lot of soul-searching, Jesse went to the 1936 Olympic Games as we know and mopped the floor with the competition. He won four gold medals- which were his for life, no matter what else happened after that- and got snubbed by Hitler, who was too mean-spirited to personally congratulate the black success story of his precious Olympic Games.

Jesse met Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler's pet movie director who made Nazi propaganda film TRIUMPH OF THE WILL, and got into her epic film about the Games, OLYMPIA, which took two years to make and edit. He also befriended his German rival, Carl Luz Long, who told him of his uneasiness at the mad, erratic behaviour of his country's government.

Back home in America, Jesse had to use the back entrance- the Coloured entrance- to the building in which his own celebratory reception was being held in his honour. The Whitehouse also refused to honour Jesse's achievements, something they surely would have done if he'd been a white man. It was a sorry state of affairs, one which wasn't rectified until much later.

The film ends when Jesse comes home from the Olympics. You might think it was all plain sailing for the gold medallist from then on, but he had a lot of trouble making ends meet at times. Yes, he had four gold medals but, as he said himself, 'you can't eat four gold medals.' You're right there, Jesse my man. You're right there.

So, was he right to go to Hitler's Olympics? I think so. If he'd boycotted them, they'd still have gone ahead without him. And who would remember him today as the athlete who boycotted the 1936 Olympic Games because Germany discriminated against so many different races and cultures? Probably no-one at all. 

As it was, he wrote his name in the history books with those rather special running shoes of his. He owed it to himself, his family, his wife and his daughter, to be the best Jesse Owens he could be. And he did that, with bloody bells on. A man can't do any more than that.


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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