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Jim Thorpe--All-American

Jim Thorpe--All-American(1951)


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In an era when Hollywood saw fit to cast Sal Mineo and Jeff Chandler as Native Americans, the ethnicity gap widened by the casting of Burt Lancaster wasn't what turned Jim Thorpe – All American (1951) into an underdog proposition. It was the film's struggle to put upbeat spin on a fundamentally downbeat story in a period not noted for hard-hitting exposes of the system. Thorpe helped reinvent football with his on-field prowess at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. He was named All-American in 1911 and 1912 after scoring every point in an upset victory over Harvard and, to beat Army, returning a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown immediately after having a 92-yard touchdown return nullified by a penalty. But he couldn't defeat the off-field forces arrayed against him.

Foremost among them was racism. In an ironic forerunner to Jesse Owens' smashing of Hitler's Master Race stereotypes in 1936, Thorpe, of Oklahoma's Sac Fox tribe, demolished the competition at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. But after making history by winning the pentathlon and decathlon, his medals were stripped from him with stern zeal in 1913 when it was learned that he played baseball for two summers in the East Carolina League, which disqualified him as an amateur. The straightforward Thorpe had played under his own name, unlike most moonlighting college athletes, who used aliases.

Thus declared a pro, Thorpe signed to play baseball with the New York Giants and as well played football with the Canton Bulldogs in a run-up to the National Football League. He played nine years in the majors (1913-1922), and retired from pro football in 1928, aged 41. He was to be belatedly acclaimed as America's greatest and most versatile athlete, but not nearly in time to head off the slow downhill slide of his life, exacerbated by bitterness and alcoholism. Off the field, he drifted through various jobs, including, on many occasions, movie jobs, often as extras, usually as Indians. Seen briefly in a non-speaking role in Jim Thorpe – All American, he's also listed as a consultant on the film. Not two years after it was released, Thorpe died broke in his trailer in Lomita, California.

Which is not to say that Lancaster didn't approach the project with all the good will one could hope for, in addition to his superb physicality. Outspoken liberal activist Lancaster can be assumed to have been motivated by a wish to right injustices suffered by Thorpe. Lancaster still hadn't made the move from what he later was to dismissively term his teeth and muscles period into the more complex characters he fashioned in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), From Here to Eternity (1953), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Elmer Gantry (1960), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and The Leopard (1963) -- all the way to the autumnal Atlantic City (1980). No small part of the positives wrung from Thorpe's sad saga stems from Lancaster's ability to convince us of Thorpe's sense of relief when immersed in the purely physical – running, dodging tacklers on a football field, using his sureness, confidence and quickness to spot sudden openings and dart through them.

In contrast, he communicates what might be called the unbearable heaviness of being, simply by stopping and letting us register his quiet cessation of motion and its replacement by inertia as his natural zest drains away when life throws Thorpe for loss after loss off the field. Despite the skeletal simplism of many of his scenes, Lancaster's is a subtler performance than it appears. His lapses into the bottle here portend the tension in his scenes as a man battling alcoholism in Come Back, Little Sheba. To watch his shoulders slump in defeat when he receives a telegram that his young son has died, and his stricken guilt turns into an outburst against his coach, is to watch an actor plumbing himself to expand his expressive range, graceful even in dejection. Yet even here, to one even slightly familiar with Thorpe's story, Hollywood's compromises diminish it.

Charles Bickford is steadily ingratiating, supplying unswerving supportiveness as Thorpe's mentor and father figure, the equally legendary coach Pop Warner, encouraging Thorpe at first, then shining like a beacon through the wreckage of Thorpe's later life. We see him jump-start Thorpe's rehabilitation by persuading him to attend the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, after which Thorpe finds himself, we are asked to believe, by encountering a team of boys playing football on a lot near the railroad tracks where Thorpe is driving his truck. After running over their ball, he becomes their mentor, catalyzing an upbeat cycle that concludes when Warner ushers Thorpe into the Oklahoma State Hall of Fame at a dinner that serves as the story's framing device.

Thorpe had eight children by three wives. We see only his first son, who died young, and his first wife, played by Phyllis Thaxter as a loyal, loving woman until her reserves of both run out. The film has been stitched together by a skilled director, Michael Curtiz, of Casablanca (1941) fame, who knew from biopics, having helmed Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Night and Day (1946) -- with The Will Rogers Story (1953)The Jazz Singer (1953) and The Helen Morgan Story (1960) to come. Jim Thorpe – All American makes clear his ability to efficiently accordion a lot of biographical detail into a series of snappy montages in a film that runs 107 minutes. But there's more than just condensation here. You're painfully aware that there's a lot of glossing over. A nostalgic glow hovers over Carlisle. In fact, it was a harsh place, founded in 1879 by an Army general, Richard Pratt, in order to squeeze the cultural identity out of Native Americans. "Kill the Indian to save the man" was his motto. He was forced out in 1904. Carlisle closed in 1918, a failure with a graduation rate of only 8%, never duplicating its gridiron glory in the classroom.

One would also like to assume that the film's choice of incidental music was ironic, especially Thorpe's Wall Street ticker tape parade to the strains of Yankee Doodle Dandy and the Carlisle song being sung to the melody of "O Tannenbaum." The Carlisle Institute was no Christmas present to Native Americans. It would be unfair to think of Jim Thorpe – All American as a lump of coal in our collective Christmas stocking. It may not go all the way with the facts. But neither does it traffic in outright lies, for all its softening, consoling gestures to the American mainstream.

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by Jay Carr