Unbroken’s Louie Zamperini is a 1936 Olympian whose runners’ strength and character help him survive deprivation and cruelty in the World War II, while The Imitation Game’s Alan Turing is a marathoner whose code-breaking skills are crucial to the Allied victory in that same war, and is a pioneer of modern computing.
But moviemakers have been taking on the subject of running with different approaches and mixed aesthetic results for decades. One of the earliest, for example, was Buster Keaton’s 1927 film College, which concluded with a running sequence where Keaton runs and jumps over hedges and moats like a steeple-chaser as he dashes to save a woman in distress.
Often, these movies can inspire runners, whether they need a kick in the butt to get off their couch for a run or to show them why they love putting in all their hard-earned Ks in the first place. There’s a long and varied list of films that can provide deeper dedication to and enjoyment of the sport, so here’s our list of classic movies and documentaries you should rent, download or stream the next time you need some added motivation.
The Jericho Mile (1979)
Critic’s Take: “Peter Strauss gives one of the great one-off performances in television history” – Tim Brayton, Antagony & Ecstasy
Why you should watch: As a defiant loner behind prison bars who finds the emotional release he requires through running, Peter Strauss deserved the Emmy he won. His staunch individualism will resonate with restless persons who did not opt for a team sport. The scenario is admittedly a bit improbable; Strauss’ character becomes one of the country’s top milers while incarcerated in Folsom Prison. But Strauss can really run, and when he talks about “floating” it might be the first moment of unadulterated bliss in his character’s life.
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Critic’s Take: “The reason it succeeds with audiences around the world is that it’s a stirring tale about inspiring people.” – Christopher Tookey, Daily Mail UK
Why you should watch: For the opening scene, which will make you want to run in the surf with your buddies to the sounds the memorable score. There’s a sensational set piece during the match race around the college courtyard at Cambridge, and you get well-drawn and contrasting 1924 Paris Olympic heroes – the taciturn and proud Harold Abrahams and jubilant and devout Eric Liddell.
But Chariots plays very fast and loose with historic fact and stands up better if you are worship all things British, but the theme is still played at road races in the 21st century – it’s that good.
Personal Best (1982)
Critic’s Take: “A very physical movie, one of the healthiest and sweatiest celebrations of physical exertion I can remember.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Why you should watch: Mariel Hemingway is credible as a gifted young pentathlete (in 2015, they’re heptathletes) in a cast of actual Olympic calibre athletes including Patrice Donnelly, a real-life Olympic hurdler, who tells her “Everything I’ve always wanted, you’ve got.”
The scenes of Hemingway and Donnelly running in the dunes of California inspired many imitators. Real life Olympic marathoner and legendary sportswriter Kenny Moore shows up as Mariel’s other love interest – a water polo player. How can you not want to see this?
Running Brave (1983)
Critic’s Take: “No one will mistake Running Brave for a great work of art, but it’s an overlooked film that young people should see.” – John A. Nesbit, Old School Reviews
Why you should watch: The small war of elbows between Billy Mills, Mohamed Gammoudi, and Ron Clarke in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics 10,000 is thrillingly done here, with Robby Benson far more believable as a (roughly) half-Sioux distance runner than he was as a pint-sized basketball hero in One on One. Mills’ struggles to overcome stereotypes and fight for the approval of his buttheaded coach make it seem miraculous that he even got to Tokyo. The film’s big payoff comes when the coach tells Benson/Mills “That was the greatest race I ever saw a man run,” and you think it was, too.
On the Edge (1986)
Critics’s Take: “May have a familiar formula, but it is an angry, original, unpredictable movie.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
Why you should watch: This was a labour of love for former University of Pennsylvania track star Bruce Dern (he was really good), and it was tough to finally get released and get it seen. The protagonist is the type of thorn-in-everybody’s-side that Dern plays so well.
A man who paid dearly for rocking the boat in the dreaded amateur era seeks redemption by training for one of America’s foremost mountain and trail races. The California scenery and the race action are everything you want, and the movie is not predictable.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Critic’s Take: “A goofy entertainment that speeds through the latter half of the 20th century, stopping here and there to snap a photo or two.” – Stephen Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer
Why you should watch: This movie’s reputation has slipped a bit since it swept the Oscars 20 years ago, but the gripes seem to more about what it doesn’t do than what it does. It’s surprising how much of the scenario is taken up with running, most rewardingly the exquisitely photographed scenes of Gump’s transcontinental treks. And the footage of young Forrest, dashing faster and faster to escape his tormentors’ pursuit, condemned many of us to hear “Run, Forrest, run!” shouted out of passing cars for years afterward.
Run Lola Run (1998)
Critic’s Take: “Not only does Lola run, she takes this hyperkinetic pop culture firecracker of a film with her.” – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
Why you should watch: It may be the most viscerally exciting “running” movie ever made, even if it’s not really a running movie at all. A flame-haired German woman in Doc Martens sprints all over her city in an effort to save her thoroughly useless boyfriend. This is a movie for which the phrase “non-stop action thriller” was invented, but it’s more stylish and electrifying than the typical lot. Lola doesn’t take the bus. Lola – even in cartoon animated form, in some scenes – can really run. This is very nearly a training film.
Without Limits (1998)
Critic’s Take: “As Pre, Billy Crudup is dynamite – a magnetic star presence who’s unafraid to show how Pre’s drive also makes him a bit of a prick.” – Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
Why you should watch: The second of two dramatised version’s of the life of Oregon legend Steve Prefontaine is the slightly superior one, thanks in large part to a smartly understated performance by Donald Sutherland as his coach, Bill Bowerman. But Crudup deserves credit for capturing the iconoclastic nature of Pre, equal parts charismatic and exasperating and, as clichéd as it might sound, a rebel at precisely the ’70s moment that track and field needed one.
Saint Ralph (2004)
Critic’s Take: “Even when it’s pushing the limits of shameless manipulation, this cheeky Canadian film has charm and wit.” – John Hartl, Seattle Times
Why you should watch: Well, sure it’s uplifting, and it’s for those who really do believe in miracles. But for most, this requires a major suspension of disbelief, especially in the Boston Marathon sequences of a young Canadian boy who is somehow a serious contender at a very tender age. It also contains what must be, of all the dozens and dozens of renditions of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the one that is the absolute worst.
Spirit of the Marathon (2007)
Critic’s Take: “A symphony of snapping sinews and pumping thighs. Enthusiastically directed by Jon Dunham.” – The New York Times
Why you should watch: It should be very high on everyone’s list. The movie follows six runners, some fabled and some not, as they prepare for the 2005 Chicago Marathon. How can you not be moved when one of the six tells us: “I had really reached a point in my life where I didn’t think that I could ever be happy again,” and then finds, “I can pretty much do anything.” Spirit of the Marathon got expert wisdom about the marathon from people who really are experts and can think and express themselves.
Run for Your Life (2008)
Critic’s Take: “A salutary and touching reminder that the race, like nearly everything else great about New York City, was the creation of a stubborn visionary.” – A.O. Scott, The New York Times
Why you should watch: This is a very affectionate documentary about pioneering New York City Marathon Director Fred Lebow. It’s a valentine to distance running’s development in New York, from the days when practitioners were few and Lebow was just about the slowest among them. He found, as the documentary capably reminds us, a way to make his indelible contribution.
The Long Green Line (2008)
Critic’s Take: “This documentary … captures the vulnerability, naivete, and pretension of youth. He [the director] focuses on the student athletes and their irrepressible coach.” – Tony Macklin, tonymacklin.net
Why you should watch: It’s about the 2005 season of legendary Illinois coach Joe Newton and the 221 students who come out for his boys’ cross country team – even though more than 200 of them will be left behind when the major meets come. The effect Newton has on all of them is what’s worth witnessing. The man who says “It’s nice to be great, but far greater to be nice,” manages to make sure his kids are both.