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The Four Minute Mile

cast: Richard Huw, Nique Needles, Michael York, Richard Wilson, and Adrian Rawlins

director: Jim Goddard

152 minutes (U) 2003
Odyssey DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Thomas Cropper
The race to be the first to complete the four-minute mile became one of the most gripping in history. Week after week, race after race, the best athletes in the world edged tantalisingly closer to the mythical mark - the equivalent of reaching the North Pole or climbing Everest; a target many said was beyond reach - until on a damp day at Crystal Palace, our very own Roger Bannister made the mark. Although Australia's John Landy would beat Bannister's record a few weeks later, it was the Bannister, who was the first athlete to do it and it would be Bannister's name that went down in history.

Jointly produced by corporations in the UK and Australia, this mini-series follows the fortunes and different approaches of the main competitors for the prize: Roger Bannister (Richard Huw) who, with his coach Franz Stampf (Michael York) and fellow athletes Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, worked on using pacers to push him to the limit. John Landy (Nique Needles) who followed the religious training techniques of the European runners and America's Wes Santee who was forced, by lack of cooperation from his own governing body, to go it alone.

But it is not the actual competition which concerns this film most of all. Infused with a sense of nostalgia, it strives to present a portrait of a sport at its height - a rose tinted spectacle of a golden era of amateurism when athletes competed not for cash, but for the sheer joy of being the best. By contrasting the laid back approach of the British athletes to the rise of professional training patterns in Europe, and by nodding towards the spread of illegal payments to runners, the film documents a sport in transition. When the four-minute barrier is finally broken you have a sense that a bridge has been crossed that will end, forever, the days of amateur competition and hasten the modern era.

For much of the time, the narrative struggles with its subject matter. How can we be kept on the edge of our seats if we already know what's going to happen? As such, it hurries, somewhat, through to its conclusion. Richard Huw's dour Bannister is a difficult hero on whom to pin our sympathies and we need the more likable Chris Chattaway to maintain our interest. In a way, you sense the filmmakers identified the more amiable Landy as a better made hero and would have rather him win the title and that might explain why it's only after the four-minute record has been broken that the film really picks up pace. Landy gets his moment when he breaks Bannister's record a few weeks after the race at Crystal Palace and the filmmakers even manage to slot in a final showdown between the two at the Empire Games. Ironically it is this that injects excitement into the story and allows us to more fully enjoy it as a drama.

As a document for a sporting contest it makes for mildly diverting viewing, but it lacks the depth to add much of a human quality to the drama. Understandably, since they were dealing with real people, the filmmakers seemed wary of causing much offence by the portrayal of some of the 'characters' and as a result they lack the texture and detail to make them really interesting. Everyone is too nice, too understanding and, when all's said and done, just a little bit too sportsmanlike. As such - unless you apply some good old-fashioned patriotism - it's hard to get worked up over the competition and even then there's something for everyone to take home. Bannister was the first to break the barrier, say the Brits, but Landy eventually walked away with the record say the Aussies. Everyone's a winner. How very convenient, but hardly a recipe for gripping viewing.
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