- Movie Rating -

Champions (1984)

| April 20, 1984

I’ll admit it.  I breathed a sigh of weary derision when I heard the plot of Champions.  It is the story – based on fact – of a man passionately in love with the steeplechase who finds out that he has life-threatening cancer.  I imagined a lot of weepy music and long speeches about bravery and overcoming obstacles.  And yes, those things are here but they are wrapped up in a movie that is thoughtful, spare and intelligent.  It’s a wonderful movie.

The story, as I said, is based on fact, on the true story of Bob Champion, an English racehorse jockey whose whole life is dedicated to the sport of the Steeplechase.  His passion isn’t stated in speeches, it is illustrated in breathtaking scenes in which we see the horses on the course running the event.  The director John Irvin puts us right there on the track so that we feel the energy of this sport, we understand first-hand Champion’s desire to keep competing.

Then, fairly early in the movie, he learns that he has testicular cancer and without treatment could live maybe a year, but with chemo could make a full recovery.  He defies the treatment, even stating that he could hope for a fatal accident on the course that would cut his life short before the cancer can claim him first.  But, of course, he does go into the treatment and does so with a defeated attitude, wanting to die rather than be out there racing.

Of course, he does pull himself back out of his funk and determines to get back out on the course.  But the movie doesn’t do this with a Rocky aesthetic.  Instead, the movie does Champion the compliment of considering him on his own terms.  This is a cold, spare man who doesn’t let gobs of emotion get in the way.  He wants to get back on the horse and do that thing that he loves.  And we understand why he wants to do this.  We’ve seen him on the course, we know first-hand what he wants and why he wants it.

I was relieved that the movie avoided the clichés.  In a movie about cancer, those dramatic pitfalls are so easy to fall into, but Irvin does several things we don’t expect.  One, he spends a lot of time on the track and visually shows us the racing, where I think a lesser film would wrap it up in soft-headed speeches.  Another is that the movie does not back into Champion’s cancer.  He is told this right there at the beginning so that the movie can be about his struggle to recover.  It doesn’t jerk us around or insight us with a lot of plot points.

I loved Champions.  I loved its spare storytelling.  I love the matter-of-fact way that it approaches this man’s struggle.  I was impressed by how intelligent the story is and how much respect that it has for the viewer.  By the end I was rooting for Champion, not because I was manipulated but because I had been led through his story by the hand and not by the nose.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1984) View IMDB Filed in: Drama