It's a miracle
by Greg Hitchcock, 8.17.05

I just saw St. Ralph. It was a nice enough story of 14-year old boy seeking a miracle to bring his mother out of a coma. The writing and acting were decent. But, here's the rub, the miracle that would revive his mother was the boy winning the Boston Marathon (that's right, not finishing the marathon, but actually winning it). They tried to make this "more believable" by setting the race in 1954, when it would only take a 2:20 marathon rather than a 2:08 to win the race, and anybody who showed up could race.

So, yes, the premise is completely unrealistic. That's where the miracle comes in. Heck, any 14-year old runner of ability probably has dreamed of a similar miracle in the idle time of the many miles run. And the star, Adam Butcher, does an okay job; I know some reviewers thought he was terrific, but he doesn't come close to Joseph Cross in Wide Awake (a much better coming of age story) or Haley Joel Osment ("I see dead people") in "The Sixth Sense". Butcher is not annoying but he's not particularly endearing either.

Where the movie loses me is where most films/shows with running lose me: in the running scenes. The kid is not too bad in this regard. His form actually improves in the seven or eight months he goes from an inactive, smoking neophyte to challenge for the Boston championship. Despite that improvement, he never is believable as a top caliber runner . What is it that gives him away? Arms swinging out, knees knocking, never actually running at a speed that would approximate the presumed speed, competitors that are 30 pounds too big and 2-3 mph too slow for their parts, races playing out in a way they never do, etc.

There are darn few movies/shows that I like that are believable. For example, one my favorite shows is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While the show is completely unbelievable in general, what with vampires, witches, and assorted demons, it makes sense in an internal way, much like Star Trek - that is, if you accept the unbelievable, the show is consistent with itself. However, I cringe every time I see Buffy run. Completely unrealistic. She runs like a bad stereotype of a non-athletic girl: arms too high and flailing, knees too high, chin way down, and sorry turnover. Sorry, she can't be a superhero if she runs like that.

Besides having non-athletic actors trying to run, what other flaws do we often see on the big and little screen when running is depicted? Typically, the runners are way too big. Seeing Michael Landon (post Little Joe) trying to be an Olympic miler in The Loneliest Runner was a bit like seeing George Reeves as Superman or Adam West as Batman. Landon was actually athletic (winning a scholarship to USC as a javelin thrower) but he's just too big to be a serious runner.

We'll often see actors run too slow or too fast. The runners will have pale white skin during the summer, where even the whitest of us guys end up with a shoulder and nose tan despite efforts to avoid the same. The racers will use ridiculous tactics, passing and re-passing each other. Or there will be races that do not exist (e.g., another favorite show of mine, Sports Night, committed this faux pas in its pilot by having a South African go for the world record in the 15,000 meters on the track). Runners on screen grimace too much, or look way too fresh for the effort they are supposed to have exerted. And of course, there is the ticking time bomb scenario where the screen time does not match the actual time at hand (e.g., the 35 seconds it takes Abrams in Chariots of Fire to do 188 yards at college).

Part of making a good running story is that Hollywood (and Burbank) has a hard time figuring out how running can be woven into a compelling story. This is too bad since when running is central to the story, a good movie often results (e.g., Chariots of Fire and Running Brave). A couple of attempts at creating an "interesting" story line in a running story include the following:

Who can forget Peter Strauss in The Jericho Mile, doing a rich man's imitation of a runner, who misses out on his Olympic dreams. Why? He is in prison. So, on the day of the Olympic mile final (we must ignore that they run the 1500 meters in real life), he runs the mile on the dirt track in the prison yard with inmates and guards cheering him on and he runs faster than the Olympic champion. Of course, the Olympic final is often run at a pedestrian pace with a sprint finish. Life imitated art when Jonathan Gill, a just-released Oregon prisoner, realistically trained to make the Olympic Trials in 2004.

The Loneliest Runner with Michael Landon had the hero racing home so that he could take his wet sheets out of the window (which his sadistic mother hung there to shame him into not wetting his bed) before the girl next door could see them. That may seem ludicrous, but this very issue of a mother maliciously embarrassing her bed-wetting son was autobiographical for Landon.

The Brits have done a job of making interesting movies with running. Take The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Here the kids look like they are runners. Then again, they aren't trying to imitate world class athletes either. The story is more about the discontented youth of post-WWII, and in the end the protagonist cannot run away from himself. Chariots of Fire is a great story and the actors do a passable job looking like runners (even if they do move a lot slower than real ones). Gallipoli also did a reasonable job portraying early 20th Century sprinters.

The two Prefontaine movies (Without Limits and Prefontaine) did a good job in the racing scenes, using real quality runners as opponents. Both leads (Billy Cruddup and Jared Leto) ran enough to be believable in their roles. The editing of the race films in Prefontaine, cutting between actual footage of the 1972 Olympics and the dramatized versions, recalled the same annoying strategy used in Running Brave; too bad neither had the budget to emulate the race scenes of Without Limits, which are probably the best we'll see short of a documentary.

Which brings me to the point. If you want to see real running in a movie, check out the opening sequence of Haile Gebrselassie in Endurance. The movie as a whole is set at Mr. Rogers' pace, but the actual running footage is terrific, and the start of the movie is as good a start to a movie as I've seen.

Go ahead and see St. Ralph. There are plenty of worse movies out there. Just don't expect the hero to run away with your heart, let alone the Boston Marathon.