Jim Thorpe - All American
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Considered by many to be the greatest all-around athlete America has ever produced, Jim Thorpe was a Native American who rose from an Oklahoma reservation to become an Olympic champion and professional football star. In the 1912 Olympics at Stockholm, Thorpe earned more gold medals than any other athlete, setting pentathlon and decathlon records and winning praise from the King of Sweden as the world's greatest athlete. Unfortunately, he was stripped of his medals when it was discovered that he had once played professional baseball. After dashed hopes of becoming a coach and the death of a son, he drifted into alcoholism and earned a meager living playing bit parts in movies, usually in stereotypical Indian roles.
With Russell Birdwell, Thorpe wrote an autobiography that was purchased by Warner Bros. The studio held on to the property for years, waiting to find the right actor to play Thorpe. Burt Lancaster, with his athletic prowess and charismatic presence, filled the bill and became the star of Jim Thorpe: All-American (1951). Lancaster, already under contract to Warners, had only to bronze his skin and darken his hair to become completely convincing.
Knute Rockne, All-American (1940). Lancaster, quoted by biographer Robert Windeler, recalled that Thorpe was "in pretty dire financial straits. My only personal contact with him during the filming was when he did drop-kicking. He came out of the stands and tried to teach me. It was sort of touching. His life had gone to pot..." Despite the racism inherent in Thorpe's struggle, Lancaster had his own theory about the athlete's troubles. "As he realized in later life, his downfall as an athlete was largely brought on by weaknesses in his own nature: a feeling that the world was against him, unreasonable stubbornness, and the failure to understand the necessity of working as a member of a team."
The screenplay simplifies Thorpe's life, reducing his three marriages to one and his six children to one. Concentrating on his track-and-field triumphs, the film does not document his abilities in boxing, swimming and golf. Still, Jim Thorpe: All-American won plaudits as one of the most compelling of all sports movies. During filming, the producers made an effort to have Thorpe's Olympic medals restored, an event that Lancaster felt would "have been a perfect ending for the movie." But it was not until 1982, 29 years after Thorpe's death, that the International Olympic Committee posthumously restored the medals. "I felt a certain cynicism that he didn't get them before," Lancaster said at the time. "What does it mean now? There is a feeling of bitterness that it didn't get done in his own time."
Producer: Everett Freeman
Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Everett Freeman, Vincent X. Flaherty, Douglas Morrow, Frank Davis, from the biography by James Thorpe and Russell Birdwell
Art Direction: Edward Carrere
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Costume Design: Milo Anderson
Editing: Folmar Blangsted
Original Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Burt Lancaster (Jim Thorpe), Charles Bickford (Glenn S. "Pop" Warner), Steve Cochran (Peter Allendine), Phyllis Thaxter (Margaret Miller), Dick Wesson (Ed Guyac).
By Roger Fristoe