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The working title for this film was The All-American. The onscreen credits contain the following acknowledgment: "Our grateful appreciation to Bacone College for its aid and cooperation in making this picture possible." Contemporary Hollywood Reporter news items note that two weeks of filming took place at Bacone College, which is located in Muskogee, OK.
As depicted in the film, Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian, was born in Oklahoma on May 28, 1888. As a boy, Thorpe, whose Indian name, Wa-tho-huck, meant Bright Path, disliked school, and his father enrolled him in schools an increasing distance away from home to discourage him from running away. However, in 1904, Thorpe's educational experiences changed dramatically when he began attending the famed Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. The school was founded in 1879 by Lt. Richard Pratt, an Army officer who was interested in improving the educational opportunities of Indians. The institution, which was the first off-reservation school funded by the U.S. government, was a vocational school rather than a college, and the length of attendance varied upon the course of study. Pratt, determined to help the Indian students adapt to white culture, initiated an "outing" system in which students would spend their holidays working for white families or employers rather than going home. The school, which closed in 1918, was well-known for the athletic prowess of its students.
The most famous Carlisle coach was Glenn S. "Pop" Warner (1871-1954), who guided Thorpe in college football and track-and-field. During Warner's college coaching career, which spanned over forty years, his record-making teams included those of Carlisle, the University of Pittsburgh, Stanford and Temple University. Warner was renowned for his innovative plays and ability to mold strong teams. Thorpe started under Warner's tutelage in track-and-field, then moved on to football and was twice named All-American. In 1912, Thorpe participated in the Olympic games in Stockholm, where he won gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon. Thorpe's astonishing performance moved King Gustav of Sweden to declare him "the greatest athlete in the world."
In 1913, the International Olympic Committee discovered that Thorpe had broken the rules governing amateur standing by receiving payment for two summers of play in a minor league baseball team. Thorpe maintained that he had not been aware of the rules, but the committee nonetheless stripped him of his medals and expunged his achievements from official record books. Following the loss of his amateur status, Thorpe enjoyed careers in both professional baseball and football. After his retirement from professional sports in 1929, Thorpe was employed in a variety of jobs, including occasional extra and bit player work in Hollywood films. He appeared in a wide variety of films, including King Kong (1933), She (1935), and finally Wagonmaster (1950). Thorpe's private life was more complicated than depicted in the film, which portrayed only one of his three wives. His first wife was a white student at Carlisle, and their son, James, Jr., died of infantile paralysis when he was three years old, but the couple also had three daughters. Thorpe had four sons with his second wife, and was living with his third wife at the time of his death of a heart attack on 28 March 1953.
In 1982, the International Olympic Committee restored Thorpe's medals [reproductions of the medals were presented to his children in January 1983] and re-entered his achievements in the official record books. Modern sources indicate that while filming Jim Thorpe-All-American, Burt Lancaster was personally involved in trying to restore Thorpe's medals. In a biography of Thorpe, Lancaster noted that "there was a strong attempt on the part of Warner Bros. to try to get his medals back. They were hoping to be able to do that as the finish for the picture." In addition to his Olympic honors, Thorpe was elected to the college and professional football halls of fame, as well as the track-and-field hall of fame, and in 1950, was voted the greatest athlete of the first half-century in a poll of sports writers conducted by The Associated Press.
According to a 1951 Variety article on the thirty-year development history of the film, Thorpe's life story had been suggested a number of times by various individuals. The article notes that in the early 1930s, Thorpe and noted publicist Russell J. Birdwell collaborated on an unpublished biography entitled Red Sons of Carlisle, the film rights to which were immediately purchased by M-G-M. M-G-M shelved the story, but in 1943, when Thorpe's friends, sports writer Norman Sper and Variety columnist Frank Scully, wrote a piece about Thorpe for Reader's Digest, interest in the athlete's life story was renewed. According to an article by Scully in Variety, M-G-M took another look at Red Sons of Carlisle, only to discover that all the legal rights to details not covered in the book had been acquired by Sper. Scully also notes that he and Sper were offered $25,000 for the rights to their Reader's Digest piece by an RKO producer, and attributes the demise of the deal to an argument Scully and Sper had over the fee for rewriting the script.
According to a biography of director Michael Curtiz, in May 1949, following M-G-M's failure to negotiate legal details with Thorpe's wife, who possessed her husband's power of attorney, the studio released its option on the film rights to Red Sons of Carlisle. The rights were then picked up by Monogram producer Lindsley Parsons, who planned to produce a film based on an original story that was written by sportswriter Vincent X. Flaherty. According to the Curtiz biography, after Warner Bros. successfully negotiated the film rights with Mrs. Thorpe, producer Everett Freeman considered Kirk Douglas for the lead. A July-August 1996 Films in Review article noted that Curtiz and Thorpe first met at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, in which Curtiz participated on the Hungarian fencing team.
The Variety review noted that stock footage of the 1912 and 1924 Olympic Games were used in the film. The film was released in Britain as Man of Bronze. According to an October 1988 Los Angeles Herald Express news item, Richard Leary was to write a screenplay of Thorpe's life to be filmed by Englander Productions, but the picture was not made.